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After-School Program Inspires Young Scientists

Space travel enthusiast impresses love for science and physics on his students.

A plastic film canister. Some Scotch tape. A few sheets of paper. A dissolving headache tab.

The students in Dranesville Elementary School teacher Tim Krupica’s after-school young astronauts program are building homemade "pop" rockets.

"OK, guys, I got this from NASA so these aren’t cheap directions, their engineers made these for you," the teacher said to the dozen third- and fourth-graders while pointing out the directions for the rocket on an overhead projector. The room, decorated with posters of the planets, space shuttles and a listing of the solar system, is abuzz with laughter and energetic voices as the children work together to build their rockets.

Later they would venture out to the front of the school with Krupica to have a contest to see whose rocket would lift off the highest when varying sizes of the headache tab are mixed with different levels of water to propel the rocket a few feet in the air.

"They’re very engaged and they absolutely love the class," said Tara Karr, a kindergarten teacher who helps Krupica run the eight-week after school program. "And it’s great because this gives them a chance to learn more about science … and I think sometimes there isn’t always a whole lot of extra opportunities for that."

AN ASTRONAUT fanatic for nearly his entire life, Krupica, a third grade teacher, brought the young astronauts program to Dranesville Elementary last year after attending the Space Academy for Educators program in Huntsville, Ala. which presented Krupica with the materials to run the hands-on program.

After word got out that one of the school’s new programs would be the Dranesville Elementary Young Astronauts, there was an immediate surge of interest in the eligible third and fourth grade students.

"We actually ended up having to do a name-drawing to see who we could get in the program," said Karr. That general interest has never gone away, as they continue to have more requests for the program than there is space and resources available. The program, which meets once a week on Thursday afternoons, runs for two eight-week sessions a year.

Krupica, who said that he still actively retains his dream of being an astronaut, said that the program has been a great way to get children excited about science and, in effect, build for the future of the science community.

"It inspires the kids, not just to be astronauts, but to go into the sciences," Krupica said. "This generation of kids will be the ones to walk on Mars … and it will need to be these programs in our schools to keep these kids inspired."

THE PROGRAM has been a great way to spend an afternoon while still doing something that is educational and fun, said Suzy Orr, of Herndon whose third-grade son Tommy is on Dranesvill Elementary’s young astronauts.

"Mr. Krupica sparks an interest in space, and Tommy never had that before," she said. "He’s a very inspirational teacher and he really just has such a positive reaction with the kids."

That passion has been what has kept Herndon resident Jeff Slade’s nine-year-old daughter Hannah looking forward to Thursday afternoons this spring.

"They do all sorts of different projects and it gets the kids out learning, enjoying themselves, having fun," said Slade. "[Krupica’s] got this great fascination for science and he brings that to these programs."

What he is learning now in the program will likely affect any job that 8-year-old third grade student Norm Aaron decides to have in the future, who said that he is interested in being a race car driver.

"I like space and all, and I thought I wanted to learn more about it, and this is a way for me to do that," he said. "And when you learn about things like the speed of rockets … it helps me to understand other things, like the speed of a car."

The program is about giving the students that extra opportunity to gain from their experience at Dranesville Elementary school, said Krupica, who is also the school’s basketball coach.

"There are a lot of sports … and I love sports, but this gives them a chance to study sciences and do it in a way that is fun and hands-on," he said. "And some of these kids, you can see, will grow up to be engineers, pilots, mathematicians and astronauts."

"And that’s a good thing to see."