Learning liftoff

Marian Lara and Oscar Clemente turned their eyes to the sky above Shuford Elementary School on Friday as two rockets floated down into a field behind the school.

Marian and Oscar cheered as parachutes opened and their classmates chased after the vessels.

The rockets were launched by Shuford fifth-graders on the final day of a science program presented by N.C. Starbase, a Charlotte-based organization that has taught science, technology, engineering and math concepts to children for 16 years. Many of the Starbase staff members are former public school teachers and principals.

"Wow, look at that one," Marian said as she pointed to the sky during another rocket launch from a pad on the school track. "The rockets are so cool."

Brandon Davis, Spenser Harris and Aajaylah Alexander all said they enjoyed building the rockets during the week.

"I liked operating mission control," said 11-year-old Zachary Braswell.

Before each launch, students prepared their rockets on a pad that connected via wires to a remote.

"Five, four, three, two, one," the students counted in unison. Then, two at a time, their peers pressed down on a yellow "arm" button and a red "launch" button to send their devices into the sky.

Smoke filled the air with a hot smell. The sound of cheers sometimes echoed against the trees behind the school. Increasing winds kept Starbase staff members' eyes on the weather, much like an official NASA launch.

The students launched dozens of rockets Friday, but they learned many science concepts during the week, said Barbara Miller, director of N.C. Starbase. Students learned about forces, Newton's laws, metric measurement, inertia and nano technology.

"They're doing a lot of physics and chemistry, higher-level stuff," Miller said. "We're hoping with the hands-on aspects that it sticks with them. We have so many engineering vacancies opening in our country as people with engineering degrees retire. We're trying at an early age to get students interested in science careers."

Shuford fifth-graders spent the entire week on the Starbase program. Principal Shane Whitener said the school was on a three-year waiting list to bring the program to Conover.

"We've seen kids who aren't usually energized about school excited to be here every day," Whitener said. "Some of these concepts are high-school level, but they've been picking up on it pretty quick.

It's one thing to talk about it; it's another thing to see it and do it."

Marian Lara pointed to the sky as another rocket launched and drifted back to the ground.

"There's drag when the parachute comes down," she said. "Maybe I want to be a teacher with Starbase."