Launching rockets and STEM dreams for first-generation students

Edgar Cintora, a Niwot High School student, holds up a model rocket he made at CU Boulder while attending a program designed to expose students space science and higher education. Vanessa Escargega, program coordinator for Casa de la Esperanza, left, and fellow Niwot High School student Jose Perez look on. The students participate through Casa de la Esperanza, a Longmont housing community and support system for agricultural workers.  (Courtesy Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado Boulder)

Edgar Cintora, a Niwot High School student, holds up a model rocket he made at CU Boulder while attending a program designed to expose students space science and higher education. Vanessa Escargega, program coordinator for Casa de la Esperanza, left, and fellow Niwot High School student Jose Perez look on. The students participate through Casa de la Esperanza, a Longmont housing community and support system for agricultural workers. (Courtesy Glenn Asakawa/University of Colorado Boulder)

Wearing latex gloves and focused expressions, a group of middle school students gathered around a large cardboard tube recently at the CU Boulder Engineering Center then carefully began wrapping it in fiberglass. All the while, an undergraduate with the CU Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (CU SEDS) organization explained how rockets are designed and built.

Soon, these same students will travel to southern Colorado to launch a rocket they helped assemble as part of a CU Junior Aerospace Engineering Camp. This camp, in particular, brought students to campus from Casa de la Esperanza, a housing community in Longmont for agricultural workers and their families.

“It was fun designing the rocket,” said Diego Ruiz, 13, who already aspires to become a scientist. “I’m excited about the launch.”

The camp, sponsored by the LASP-affiliated Institute for Modeling Plasma, Atmospheres, and Cosmic Dust (IMPACT) with funding from NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), is designed to reach students who don’t typically go into fields like aerospace, including women and minorities. Almost all of the middle school students are Latino and have parents who never attended college.

“The summer camp is really interesting for students,” said Michael Lozano Roman, a STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) specialist who works with children at Casa de la Esperanza. “They get to work with professional people. When they graduate from high school, they start to think about what they might like to do in the future.”

Lozano Roman said six students from Casa de la Esperanza are now in college, including two studying mechanical engineering at CU. “They’re the first generation in their family to go to college,” he said.

A group of CU Boulder undergraduate and graduate students, known as Science, Technology and Astronomy Recruits (STARS), is helping the middle school students learn about the solar system. The STARS students are focused on encouraging underrepresented populations to study science.

“We want to help the students see themselves as scientists,” said Andrew Sturner, a graduate student in astrophysics.

Michael Nothem, a CU Boulder undergraduate in engineering physics who works with the STARS program, said he attended an inner-city high school in Denver and knows what a difference it can make for students to meet a scientist.

“I was already interested in science and looking for a scientist to see what they did,” said Nothem. “I’ve had mentors throughout my time here.”

The capstone of the summer camp will be when the students launch a 6-foot rocket they helped build. That launch is now scheduled for Aug. 20 in a rural area southwest of Pueblo, CO.

“It will be a two-stage rocket,” said Tom Mason, Communications and Outreach Director at LASP, who has led the summer camp. “The nose cone will pop off with a parachute. There will also be an altimeter and beacon on board.”

The rocket should soar to 5,000 feet and carry a container of honey, to test the effect of the launch on the honey’s viscosity. A small army of military stick figures with tiny parachutes will also be ejected from the rocket.

Most of the kids enrolled in the current summer camp also attended a previous camp LASP sponsored two years ago. Mason said the kids came back because they enjoy learning about science and being exposed to the scientific research at CU Boulder.

“These kids really appreciate what we’re doing here and the opportunity they have to be involved in this program.”