Central Florida fifth-graders learn STEM skills and have a blast. literally.
Story by Britt Kennerly
Photos by Roberto Gonzalez
Umatilla Elementary School is about 80 miles from Kennedy Space Center. It’s just a field and a fence away from a lake in a part of rural Central Florida where you’re more likely to meet a farmer than a former astronaut.
But once a year, on Rocket Launch Day, Umatilla fifth-graders—with the determination of people who sent mankind to the moon—prove that space and science are truly a blast.
As they do, they gain vital knowledge of STEM—an acronym for science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects that will serve them well in life, organizers and supporters of the popular project say.
More than 100 student-built rockets soared toward the heavens during the 17th annual event this past May. It’s sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Umatilla and area businesses that buy ads, which help students purchase and assemble rockets from 9 inches to 6 feet tall.
Coach and teacher Mark Wilson has led the Lake County school’s innovative program since its inception, addressing topics such as aerodynamics, projectile motion and acceleration. The project is integrated into Grade 5 classroom education.
Six rockets at a time, in groups called waves, sat facing the lake and ready to blast off as the student body waited for Wilson to start the familiar countdown.
“5-4-3-2-1,” the kids shouted, wave after wave. They roared approval as rockets sliced the cloudless, brilliant-blue sky, leaving wispy contrails before tiny parachutes dropped from them.
“We might have a future astronaut or scientist here. STEM is so important to this country’s future. But it’s fun for the children too. And that’s what we want—for them to learn but to have a good time doing it.”
Norah Carpenter strode toward the launch area, carrying a sparkling-pink-and-green “G-Force” rocket. At 6 feet tall, the G-Force towered over her, but with help, Norah secured it on the launch apparatus. Then, she headed to the control stand and eyed her rocket, packed with gunpowder that would ignite when she pressed a button connected to wiring leading to the rocket.
“I’m hopeful,” she said.
“It was great,” she said. “It went toward the lake so I think we’ll find it.”
They did, within minutes.
Veteran Kiwanis member Tom Rose and other Kiwanians assist with troubleshooting, helping kids whose rockets might not be packed properly or won’t take off.
This year, few snafus occurred. Rose smiled every time a countdown led to success.
“We might have a future astronaut or scientist here,” he said. “STEM is so important to this country’s future. But it’s fun for the children too. And that’s what we want—for them to learn but to have a good time doing it.”
Every time out, parents, grandparents and folks from around Umatilla settle into lawn chairs or on blankets to cheer on the budding scientists.
Carly Sayles praised the program’s influence on her three children. This time, it was youngest son Isaiah, 11, pressing the launch button.
“He got a new experience, something different from sports, that can open new opportunities and ideas for him,” Sayles said.
Isaiah just hoped his “Big Bertha” rocket would be retrieved. Most are, some turning up months or years later and landing as far as two miles away.
“I learned you can never pack a parachute too tightly or it won’t work and gets stuck,” he said. “And about velocity. It’s cool.”
That, Coach Wilson said, is what it’s all about.
“This is an experience these kids will never forget,” he said. “They’re learning more than just science; about teamwork and sticking to something. And they treasure those rockets when they get them back.”
This story originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Kiwanis magazine.