Kaboom! Student rockets launch skyward at NASA camp

The excitement was building quickly inside Erika McFadden’s classroom on the third floor of Roxborough High School on Thursday afternoon.

The students from NASA’s youth science camp had just gotten back from lunch and they couldn’t wait to head outside to test out their homemade rockets.

Some groups hastily applied tape to the construction paper wings on their empty two-liter bottles, while others carefully personalized their creation with markers.

Just before heading outside, 18-year-old Alona Regan of East Falls wrote the names of her grandparents in red ink at the top of her rocket.

For her, this was more than just a camp project.

“My grandfather was in the military, so, if he was still alive, he would be honored that I was doing this,” Regan said. “I made this rocket in memory of Mary Regan, that’s my [grandmother], and William Howie Regan, my grandfather.”

Regan was one of nearly 40 students who participated in this year’s Summer of Innovation camp, sponsored by NASA, at Roxborough High. The week-long camp gave students entering grades 5 through 10 a first hand look at earth science, aeronautics, rocketry, robotics and space science, for free.

“This is the ideal class for a science teacher because [the kids] are all here because they want to be; they’re specifically interested in space science,” said McFadden, teacher for both the NASA camp and Roxborough High.

Putting their skills to the test

At 2 p.m., McFadden uttered the words that the class had been waiting to hear all day: “Grab your rockets and let’s head outside.”

McFadden’s group of older students gathered on the back field with the other class of younger students as each group tried to make their case for why they should get to launch their rocket first.

The students then took turns pumping at the rocket station and launching their plastic contraptions into the air, each one trying to outshoot the last rocket’s distance as the young crowd watched in awe.

The first rocket cut off at about 16-feet while others made it past 25-feet.

Unfortunately, Regan’s rocket didn’t get a chance to shine because the opening of the bottle didn’t fit around the launch pipe.

“Yeah, it was a bummer,” she said.

But McFadden hopes the students will walk away from the camp with more than just the pride of launching a rocket.

“I hope this is building their group skills and working as a team and also their problem-solving skills,” said McFadden, who taught a lesson on Bernoulli’s principle and the history of rocketry before sending the group out. 

Roxborough High was selected as one of four sites in the city of Philadelphia to participate in the program after the school applied for a federal grant seeking to increase student interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Among this week’s other activities were: a traditional egg drop, the building of a volcano and the creation of a robotic hand out of cardboard, straws and string.

Friday’s lineup for the last day includes a special visit from NASA personnel who will be bringing in a helmet and glove from a NASA spacesuit.

Launching rockets and careers

For 11-year-old Rayna Mason of Mount Airy, it’s been a fun-filled week that she wasn’t expecting.

“I wasn’t really excited about it in the beginning, but once I got here it was actually a lot of fun,” she said. “I didn’t want to admit it to my parents at all, but it’s actually kind of fun.”

Mason hopes the basic science skills she learned at camp can one day be used in her career.

“I want to be a photographer when I grow up so I kind of want to know what works inside the camera and how it shoots and stuff,” she said.

15-year-old Malcolm Bundy of Germantown says he joined the camp because of his love for science.

“It’s my best subject in school,” he said.

He enjoyed learning about meteors, ultraviolet rays and air pressure this week, but admits that his favorite day was robotics day.

“I want to be a robotic engineer,” he said. “If they do this again next year, I would like to be a part of it.”

But he may have to beat Mason’s friends to it first.

“I’m gonna encourage my friends to do it next year,” Mason said. “I’m already emailing them the link so they can do it.”

As for Regan, she’s hoping the camp gives her the tools she needs to make her dreams come true one day.

At the very least, the unique experience is teaching kids, like Regan, to set their sights high.

“I’m hoping to get into space someday,” she said. “I would love to walk on the moon.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.