Launchpad to space: Camp builds enthusiasm for middle grades
At 10 a.m. Friday, June 25, the parking lot above the Jackson County Early College was nothing but a mundane expanse of asphalt on the upper campus of Southwestern Community College, all but deserted for summer break.
But within half an hour, it transformed into a launch pad for 40 aspiring astronauts, engineers, researchers and other world changers.
“A lot of stuff you read in a book, you know it, but once you do it, it’s different,” said Eden Chen, a rising ninth grader at Smoky Mountain Elementary School, as he worked with 12-year-old Ranier Finley to execute one last launch of his tetrahedral kite.
Campers release their homemade water rockets from the launch pad. Holly Kays photo
Each of the 40 fourth through ninth-graders attending Astro Camp at SCC had made their own kite out of straws, string and tissue paper, carefully arranging the components to maximize the contraption’s aerodynamic qualities. All over the parking lot, kids congregated in groups to doctor their kites between flights, while sporadic shouts of encouragement erupted whenever a combination of skill, craftsmanship and a lucky burst of wind supported an exceptionally high flight, the landbound pilot running furiously while doling out string to keep the craft aloft.
The kites weren’t the only objects flying through the air.
Another section of the lot featured three launching stations where campers could offer their handmade water rockets for testing. Made from two-liter soda bottles, the projectiles were powered by water sloshing in the bottom compartment. The launching stations included air pumps that pressurized the water, eventually building up enough power to thrust the rockets up into the sky. If all went as planned, the rocket would launch and a parachute attached to the top would deploy midair, causing the rocket to drift lazily back to the ground.
“Ready?” shouted Scott Miller, who teaches STEM to grades six through eight at Smokey Mountain Elementary School when he’s not at Astro Camp. “On five, on four, on three, two, one, blast off!”
With that, the students released their creations, and observers quickly shifted their gaze from ground to sky — out of fascination with the flight, and out of instinct to get out of the way of any falling debris.
“Aria, perfect parachute deployment!” called Miller after a particularly beautiful result. “Perfect parachute deployment!”
The parking lot launch party came at the end of two weeks filled with building water filters, kites and two different kinds of rockets, dissecting squid and crayfish, experimenting with virtual reality and escape rooms and dabbling with computer coding. It was a lot of learning, according to SMES sixth-grader Kaneya Simpson, but it was so expertly disguised as fun that you barely realized it was academic.
“Every project has some technology, math and science,” she said. “You don’t even notice because you’re having fun while doing it.”
That’s the idea.
The camp, now in its third year, is offered by SCC’s Smoky Mountains STEM Collaborative , which is supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Science Activation Program that aims to help learners of all ages “do” science. The SMSC is one of just 29 organizations nationwide to participate in NASA’s collaborative program, and the only one in North Carolina. It first joined the program — and the grant funding that comes with it — in 2015. The 2017 solar eclipse’s projected path through Western North Carolina factored significantly in that initial approval, with the funding mainly supporting astronomy and eclipse-themed events and activities. Funding was recently extended for another five years, set to last through 2025.
Astro Camp, first offered in 2018, is free for students to attend and made possible by grant money, but also by enthusiasm and effort on the part of SMSC Project Coordinator Randi Neff and a cadre of committed teachers at Smokey Mountain Elementary.
While the grant covered the $10,000 cost of hiring five teachers and two student interns for two weeks, plus supplies for the activities, it was still up to the teachers to make a limited amount of money go a long way. Case in point: in order to cut supply costs, teachers dug the soda bottles used to make rockets out of dumpsters.
But despite the extra effort required to make camp happen — at the end of a topsy-turvy year that has presented teachers with never-before-seen challenges — SMES teachers staffing the camp said they wouldn’t miss it for the world. Like many other beloved activities, Astro Camp didn’t happen in 2020. Because the space they’d previously used at SMES isn’t available this year due to increased space demands for summer school , it almost didn’t happen this year either. Luckily, SCC opened its doors.
“We lobbied for camp to be here, because this is such a rejuvenating time to spend time with kids and really just get to play with no pressure,” said Charity Jamison, a sixth-grade teacher at SMES. “It’s low stakes, there’s no testing, there’s no paperwork. We do all of our planning on the front end. And then we just get to come and have fun for two weeks with kids and learn with them.”
In her view, the teachers need camp just as much as the kids do.
“It pumps me up,” she said.
The 40 students in this year’s group represent the largest Astro Camp cohort yet. Holly Kays photo
The 2021 Astro Camp was both the largest and the longest of the three camps that the SMSC has executed thus far, serving 40 kids for two weeks. Previous camps had lasted only one week.
While Astro Camp is the biggest-ticket item that SMSC oversees, it’s far from the only one. In addition to the $10,000 spent for camp, the NASA funding provides $7,700 for NASA-related content in the four school districts the collective serves.
During the next five years of the program, SMSC plans to increase STEM outreach to technical trade programs like welding and shorter-term workforce training programs at SCC, and to build a more vibrant network for STEM organizations to use the NASA content. Current project partners include Jackson County Public Schools, Macon County Schools, Swain County Schools, Cherokee Central Schools, Appalachian State University, Western Carolina University, Haywood Waterways, The Boys & Girls Club of the Plateau, Fontana Regional Library, Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Marshall Space Flight Center.
“Who doesn’t want to go to space?” said Suzanne Hummer, a science teacher at SMES, as she watched the water rockets fly. “My biggest problem is I was born about 50 years too soon. I can’t go to space. That’s not going to happen.
“But they’ll go,” she said, gesturing toward the kids preparing to launch their rockets.
It’s easy to see that she really believes that, as do the other teachers spending part of their summer break hanging out with a bunch of teens and pre-teens building self-propelled science projects. The goal of the program is to get the students to believe it, too.
Amanda Hall, a former SMES teacher in her third year of teaching camp, is now a doctoral student at N.C. State studying how well Astro Camp is meeting that aim.
“What we’ve learned is that a lot of them don’t feel incredibly confident when they get here about their abilities, but by the time they leave camp, they have a pretty firm belief that they can accomplish just about anything,” she said. “And a lot of that has to do with the instructors being very open to the students making mistakes, doing things over again, undoing things that need to be undone, starting over if you need to do.”
In interviews conducted on that last day of camp, the students certainly sounded confident.
“Definitely,” said Sampson, 11, when asked if she’s thinking about a career in science when she grows up. “I’ve always dreamed about being a scientist and finding vaccines for people who need it. Maybe if there’s a virus or another outbreak, I was hoping to find a cure for it.”
Finley, 12, said he wants to be a mechanical engineer when he grows up, and that his experience at camp made him even more excited about that future.
“It just made me realize how fun that would be and how important it is to the world too, for all the things we do,” said the rising seventh-grader at Summit Charter School. “We wouldn’t be here today without like all the mechanical engineering and software and technology.”
Not every kid who loves Astro Camp will go into a STEM career, Neff acknowledges. And that’s OK. When facing the trial and error and frustration of trying and failing to build a tetrahedral kite, or a rocket, or a rubber band-powered paddleboat — and then, finally, experiencing the joy of success — the kids learn a lot more than scientific concepts.
“It would be nice if they went into STEM careers, but even if they don’t,” said Neff, “it’s just an understanding of how science is done, and how to persist.”