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Rocket Science 101

Kilmer students launch homemade rockets.

Seventh-graders lined the field in front of Kilmer Middle School on Friday, June 10, waiting to fire their self-made rockets into the sunny sky. Carrying miniature rockets composed of 2-liter soda bottles, construction paper, cardboard and masking tape, teams of students participated in the fourth annual "October Sky Day."

Each year, Kilmer's Gifted and Talented Center prepares for the event with an interdisciplinary unit on space. "In English, the kids read [Homer Hickam's] novel 'October Sky;' in history, they learn about the space race, Sputnik, and the evolution of NASA; in science, they learn how to make the rockets; and in math, the kids are taught the formulas they need to make the rockets," said seventh-grade teacher Barbara Appling.

Inspired by the true story of Homer Hickam and the "Rocket Boys" who became NASA professionals after making their own rockets and flying them in a field, "October Sky Day" gives the students a chance to reenact the novel and the film.

Under the guidance of tech teacher Kent Schweitzer, the children first constructed sample rockets from straws and shot them at walls. They were then allowed 50 minutes to form small groups to build the rockets from the available materials.

"It made me feel like a scientist doing this," said Jake Hermle, 13. He and his classmates then carried the completed water-powered rockets to be tested.

The competing teams commented on each rocket's performance, as they contemplated which rocket flew the highest.

"This is the most exciting unit," said Appling. "We do it at the end because it's the most exciting."

The seventh-graders shared their teacher's enthusiasm.

"This is a good change from the rest of the year," said Mike Pilger, 13.

"We get out of school and get to launch rockets," said Denise Funsten, 13. "Who could complain?"

After the flight test, the students heard a speech by Dr. Ed Weiler, director of Goddard space flight center. Weiler, who has worked on NASA's space science programs for 27 years, spoke on the search for life in the universe.

For the children, Weiler offered some clear advice. "Stay in school, study math and science, or else the country will go down the drain," he said.