Launching a love for science

Cedric Rockwell hunches inside the control center van, a nervous index finger poised above a red button. The teen anxiously awaits his cue from some 3,000 assistants outside, schoolchildren eager to do their part for science.

"Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Liftoff!," they shout. With a flash, the project - a real live rocket - whistles into the Rhode Island atmosphere at 4,000 m.p.h.

Back on earth, educators involved in this $25,000-plus science lesson, part of a national program, hope it launches an interest in science among participating children.

"You'd think it would be an easy sell for kids. But there's a lot of hoopla science out there," says Peter Schultz, director of the Rhode Island Space Grant Program at Brown University in Providence. "Sometimes a kid can learn real science from dissecting a grasshopper. I'm hoping that this project involves both," he says.

The rocket project took two years of preparation by groups including the Rhode Island Space Education Council, Brown University, and Rockets for Space Education, a sort of roving rocket-launching project sponsored by the Spaceport Florida Authority. Since 1991, the authority has launched about 25 rockets for schools in states including Delaware, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

In Rhode Island, organizers came up with the idea of timing the launch to coincide with last week's Leonid meteor shower, to give it an even stronger tie to science. High schools competed to design a payload, a probe to collect meteor dust. While the rocket itself cost about $25,000, most of it paid by NASA and delivered through participating governors' offices, the probe cost another $20,000 or so, which was covered mainly by Raytheon Corp. and other businesses.

Two Brown graduate students, who received fellowships through Mr. Schultz's program, conducted workshops about the endeavor for teachers and students throughout Rhode Island.

"It's one thing to launch a rocket. It's another for the project to have legs," Schultz says. "I was concerned about how to sustain interest."

On the morning of the liftoff, the windy fields near the launch were transformed into a giant science fair, with spent missiles, real helicopters for students to scramble on, and demonstrations of bottle rocket launches. Excited children, mostly grade-schoolers, dashed among the exhibits and demonstrations.

"I'm here to see the rocket. I think it's going to catch some dust from a comet," said Zachary Gustafson, visiting with his fourth-grade class from St. Leo the Great school in Pawtucket, R.I.

Larry Ciummo, of West Greenwich, R.I., walked among the exhibits with his first-grader, Benjamin. "At this age, if they can see how it works that's part of getting kids going," he said.

The students who designed the payload, Cedric and four others at the Chariho (R.I.) Career and Technical Center, had worked intensively on it, using computer-aided design and advanced physics. "Last year the lesson was the design process," explains their teacher Eric Gartner. "We'll take it backwards now and study why certain materials were included in the design."

"We all learned together," he adds. "I truly just tried to help them along."

At the launch, the Chariho students, all in a pre-engineering program, experienced the thrill of success.

The rocket travelled at Mach 5, five times the speed of sound, until it reached 20 miles above the earth. Then, the payload and its carrier separated from the rocket and continued on up, until they reached 56 miles high and were surrounded by comet dust. Before the launch, a part of the payload had been slathered with greasy silica gel, to capture some of the dust.

"You can't describe the feeling when that thing went off," says Brett Williams, a senior at Chariho and member of the student team. The whole experience, he says, has made him "think more about careers."

Responses like that are what the organizers desired from the launch, an event that could "foster aviation as a career," says Henry Tarlian, a former school superintendent and president of the Rhode Island Space Education Council. When planning began several years ago, someone suggested launching a rocket, he says, and the council of educators and aviation buffs immediately took to the idea.

In short order, it linked up with Rockets for Space Education, a state-funded entity created in 1989 to fill part of the gap in space services that has resulted from NASA cutbacks.

"NASA put seed money in. We supply the expertise," says Michael Dunkel, director of Rockets for Space Education.

The end results aren't always successful, as Cedric and his classmates recently learned. Although the rocket launch went off smoothly, the students ran into difficulties when attempting to locate the payload after it landed in the Atlantic. The radio transmitter on the Coast Guard boat that was meant to retrieve it failed, leaving the payload and its cache of meteor dust lost in the ocean.

Nevertheless, the project's organizers feel it's worth the hefty price tag. Their main goal, Mr. Dunkel explains, is to reach students. "You're competing with MTV and VH1," he says. "You have to get their attention somehow."

"I bet every kid here today will go home and say they saw a rocket go up," he says. "If that sticks with 1 out of 100 kids, it's worth it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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