Worcester Summer Academy Focuses On Rockets

BERLIN — Students in Worcester County are being encouraged to aim for the stars this summer, both figuratively and literally.

The county’s Board of Education is partnering with NASA once again this year to offer a month-long Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) summer academy focused on students, grades 6-8. The camp culminates with a large final project, which involves the designing, construction and testing of a scientific device.

“They focused on rocketry this year,” said Tamara Mills, coordinator of fine arts for county schools and the facilitator of summer academies.

Mills explained that the academy was funded by a grant from the 21st Century Community Learning Center and that this summer marks the third in a row Worcester has received the money.

The STEM academy itself saw 192 participants this year. According to Mills, it’s often the parents who care the most about summer programs. However, this year, she noticed far more students than usual actively trying to get involved in the academy.

“There was a definite interest in the students,” she said.

Academy members have learned about rockets, physics and flight, beginning with the basics like Newton’s Laws. From there, students began building and testing their own rockets made from a variety of materials and powered by simple fuel sources such as air and water. At the end of this week, students will take the final step, building and launching rockets powered by combustible fuel at Wallops Island, where they will meet and speak to NASA engineers about rocketry.

Even with the attention given to math and technology skills making up a fundamental part of the program, Mills noted that the academy also helped students improve abilities unrelated to science.

“NASA hasn’t forgotten the important reading aspect as well,” she asserted.

After the launch of their final rockets, students will have to give a presentation on the entire experience to a group of NASA engineers, including a PowerPoint. Additionally, Mills said that the students would have to be prepared to field questions from the group about their rockets, how they designed them and what they learned over four weeks.

“There’s a lot of information and a lot of work put into 20 days,” said Mills of the STEM academy.

Included in the grant this year was funding for five teachers along with money for materials. Each school will contribute a reading and language, a math, a technology, and two science teachers to the academy. Mills claimed the variety of educators allows the curriculum for the summer to mesh well together, and makes each student a better-rounded individual once the program is completed.

Since the academy is relatively new, it’s hard to gauge yet how effective its goal of awakening interest in science and technology in youth has been.

“Time will tell,” said Mills.

However, with more and more interest developing in the academy every year, Mills was optimistic about the impact it’s having. She also pointed out that kids don’t have to wait for a career to enjoy the benefits of STEM.

“It’s a great precursor to Worcester Technical high school,” she said.

Students are also able to apply skills learned in the academy to future programs at the high school level, including a possible internship at NASA.

“While the [STEM academy] program is separate from that of the high school program, they are supportive of one another and both help to excite students about careers and future possibilities in math, science and engineering,” Mills said.

Because of the grant, the program is free to students enrolled in public school in Worcester, grades 6-8. Mills encouraged anyone with an interest in science and technology or even those who aren’t sure if they do, to look into the academy in the future.