Blast off! Program uses rockets to promote STEM education

Julie Gorham / Citrus Chronicle

The wind did not cooperate for Citrus Springs Elementary School fifth-graders on Monday. Students aimed their rockets in one direction, but a meddling breeze sent them soaring elsewhere, with some leaving the school campus and many landing in trees.

But the day was not lost to the wind. As each student walked up to the launch site, classmates cheered and shouted “3, 2, 1... blast off!” and the rockets flew into the sky.

With a $1,000 grant from Citrus County Education Foundation (CCEF) and an additional $1,200 from Citrus Springs Elementary’s School Advisory Council to cover costs, the entire fifth-grade population at the school participates in the fun but educational activity.

On school days from May 12 through May 17, students pursued the goal of landing the rockets as close as possible to a target, which was placed 50 feet from the launch pad.

“They get two launches and we take the average of the two, so it’s important to keep that rocket out of the trees,” teacher Tina Hackey said.

Unfortunately, on Monday, the wind had other plans.

Out of 130 fifth-graders, six students held qualifying launches, with Victoria Miterko hitting the best average at 23 feet, 4.5 inches. These students competed against one another with the top three to represent the school at the annual Reach for the Stars National Rocket Competition, which is a part of the Christa McAuliffe Challenger Learning Center Educational Outreach Program (CMCLCEOP).

“They don’t just build and launch rockets, they have to research a science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) career,” Hackey said. “They have to define what schools offer the chosen career, how much they would earn, and where they would work.”

Hackey said last year, two fifth-grade students won national titles against students up to 18 years old from around the United States. Plus, both were given the opportunity to launch rockets at the Kennedy Space Center.

A total of five Citrus Springs Elementary students have won in the national competition and then gone to either the U.S Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, or Kennedy Space Center in the past seven years.

Hackey heard about the competition when she was a fifth-grade teacher at Crystal River Primary School in 2011 and since then has made it her mission to bring it to students.

“It excited me because I’m from Cocoa Beach. I have family who helped build the launch pad for the original Apollo missions,” she said. “I’ve always been a huge space nerd, so I got a grant through CCEF for my class to do it.”

Since then she has applied for the grant and every year has been able to bring this childhood love to her students, with the hope of elevating their interest in STEM studies and careers.

“My father always told me to be an engineer,” she said. “The best thing I can do is open their eyes to what is out there.”

The students’ official times and paperwork will be sent to the CMCLCEOP for the chance to be among the six national winners. The winners will be announced in October.


* First place: Victoria Miterko.

* Second place: Liliana Henry.

* Third place: Unavailable.


Photo by Matthew Beck

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