It's not every day that NASA scientists ask kids to design and launch rockets that could deliver food to inhabitants on a storm-ravaged, isolated Pacific island.
On Oct. 8, thousands of young students across the country took up that challenge as part of 4-H's 2014 National Youth Science Day. The event is held annually to encourage student involvement in STEM-related fields. Each year, 4-H'ers nationwide participate in the same science experiment.
"4-H is more than cows and cooking," said Kirk Astroth, director of Arizona 4-H Youth Development. "Everything we do is about science. We try to keep up with the changing needs and interests of kids – we teach app development, photography, GPS and rocketry."
This year's experiment, called "Rockets to the Rescue," was designed by UA Cooperative Extension and Arizona 4-H Youth Development, in collaboration with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' Department of Nutritional Sciences, the College of Engineering, the College of Education, the UA STEM Learning Center, Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium, Northern Arizona University's Center for Science Teaching and Learning, Raytheon Inc. and the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence.
More than 900 Rockets to the Rescue events were registered, including several in Italy and the United Kingdom.
Nearly 100 4-H'ers participated in National Youth Science Day at the UA's Campus Agricultural Center. At the event, they were challenged by NASA scientists to design rockets that could safely deliver high-energy food to a starving population stranded on a fictional, typhoon-ravaged Pacific island.
"Rockets to the Rescue teaches kids about aerospace engineering, nutritional sciences and consumer economics," Astroth said. "This is much bigger than any of our previous experiments – it really grabs kids' imaginations."
The fictional scenario took a very real turn when typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines last November, a month after Rockets to the Rescue was conceived. Aid workers struggled to get adequate nutrition to survivors on isolated islands. The death toll exceeded 6,000.
"When people think about starving populations, they think about food shortages, but it's more of a food-delivery issue than it is a quantity issue," Astroth said. "We wanted the kids to think about how they could safely deliver food to people while it's still fresh."
At the start of the event, teams of two were formed and given about 20 minutes to design their rockets using simple materials such as PVC pipe, paper, tape, string, cotton balls and plastic bags. Aside from a few basic instructions, 4-H'ers were free to create their rockets in any fashion.
The young engineers had to consider variables such as the rocket's launch angle and weight, as well as the nutrient density and cost efficiency of the payload. The rockets were then launched at a target 30 feet away.
"In this experiment, there's no right answer," explained Eric Larsen, a Pima County 4-H Youth Development agent who aided in the experiment's design. "There are millions of possibilities. We're not prescribing kids the right way to do it, we're asking them, 'What do you think is the right way?' Then we let them find the answer themselves."
Before launching, each team had the opportunity to present its rocket design to the rest of the group and explain how it intended to reach the target. The exercise reflected how real scientists and engineers have to communicate their designs and experiments to others.
Then came the big launch. Dozens of multicolored rockets of all shapes and sizes soared across the Agricultural Center's livestock arena. After each launch, 4-H'ers recovered their rockets and returned to the drawing board, altering their designs to make them more effective. After a few rounds of experimentation, nearly every team was hitting the target.
"This truly is inquiry-based learning," Astroth said. "Letting the kids have the experience before you tell them what to do is how you stimulate creativity."
This year's event also collaborated with NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Center in California as part of an agency-wide Summer of Innovation program. The goal of the program is to engage and train the next generation of STEM leaders. Armstrong's director of education, Karla Shy, worked with Astroth and colleagues to develop the experiment and attended the Oct. 8 event at the UA.
"It's amazing to see the kids thinking through the problem and discovering what they can do," Shy said. "They change one variable at a time, and they keep getting better and better."
Astroth and Shy emphasized that the most effective way to bring STEM education to as many students as possible is to train other educators. Astroth, who has trained 150 4-H leaders in Arizona alone, recently traveled to New York to train YMCA directors to host events at more than 200 different sites. He even made a trip to Nepal to perform the Rockets to the Rescue experiment with local youth and their leaders.
The 4-H experience offers youth access to world-class UA faculty and facilities, Astroth said. He said he hopes eventually to offer college credit through 4-H activities for those interested in attending the UA.
"4-H is your first class from the University of Arizona," he said.
The organizers' enthusiasm was matched by that of the participants.
"Experiments like this keep you on your feet and keep you thinking," said Elizabeth Young, 17, who hopes to attend the UA next year. "4-H is a great program. There's something for everyone."
"I've always had a thing for rockets, they're really cool," said Rory Maciulla, 10, who also has participated in photography projects and raising livestock. "4-H is a really good thing. There's so many things I like to do. I'm definitely going to keep coming back."