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New UH STEM Camp Inspires Future Engineers

Posted June 8, 2017 – On a grassy field at the University of Houston, 14-year-old Philleo George pumped and pumped and pumped air into the homemade rocket he and his team had just designed Wednesday.

The aspiring engineer needed to build enough pressure in the base of the rocket – a two-liter soda bottle – to make it soar.

“Muscle man,” his teammate Damien Davis, also 14, said with encouragement.

The students, recent classmates at Cullen Middle School in Third Ward, were participating in a weeklong STEM-focused summer camp on campus. The new event, hosted at the UH College of Education, was designed to fuel students’ interest in science and engineering and to spur their creativity as future inventors, said Heather Domjan, a clinical associate professor in College of Education and interim director of the UH STEM Center.

The UH STEM Center partnered with UH’s teachHOUSTON program and the Young Inventors Association of America to host the UH Young Inventors Summer Camp, aimed at incoming sixth- through ninth-graders.

Students from Houston ISD’s Cullen Middle School and Blackshear Elementary received scholarships as part of UH’s Third Ward Initiative, a partnership with the community that includes working to improve educational outcomes. Students from Whidby Elementary in south Houston also received scholarships.

Before the 50 or so students headed outside Wednesday, they got a crash course in physics, engineering and aerodynamics from UH instructors and doctoral students. Then, they got a bin of supplies: construction paper, foam paper, rubber bands, string, aluminum foil, plastic bags and bubble wrap.

“These are household items. STEM doesn’t mean it has to be expensive,” Domjan said. “A lot of students don’t have the opportunity to go to NASA, so we bring the opportunity to them.”

Domjan worked on the camp with Mariam Manuel, an assistant professor in the UH College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics who led a similar program in Katy schools.

Team Rocket

Philleo and Damien teamed with Isaac Turcios and Truc Truong, who both just finished eighth grade at Killough Middle School in the Alief Independent School District.

Over the next two hours, they experimented and divided up tasks: forming a cone out of construction paper to serve as the nose of the rocket, placing foam fins around the bottle and attaching a large plastic bag with string for the parachute.

They called themselves, “Team Rocket.”

On the team’s first launch, the parachute broke off quickly, the rocket flying not much higher than their heads.

For the second attempt, they reinforced the string, using not only tape but knots.

Philleo pumped again.

“What’s the PSI at?” Domjan asked.

She wanted to know if the bottle had enough air yet. What was the pounds pressure per square inch?

At 40 pounds, she gave the cue.

“Three… two… one!”

The students looked toward the sky.

“Whoa!” Domjan said. “That’s good.”

The bottled soared roughly 50 feet.

“We knew the parachute worked,” Damien said.

“It just needed stronger adhesive to the rocket,” Isaac added.

A lesson in creativity and teamwork

Mission accomplished, the students started on their next project – designing an invention. Philleo and Damien joined Dion Holmes, a rising eighth-grader at Killough Middle School.

Their idea: a backpack with the electrical power to charge a cell phone and laptop.

“The battery should be lightweight,” said Philleo, who will enter Yates High School in Third Ward in the fall.

“We want it to be light but not too light,” said Damien, who’s headed to HISD’s Chavez High School in southeast Houston.

Both students want to be engineers. They praised the UH campus for the hands-on projects tied to the real world.

“We got to build things and create things and show off our talent,” Damien said.

“It helped me and I’m sure it helped others bring out their creativity,” Philleo added. “And it helped us cooperate as a group.”

–By Ericka Mellon

–Photos by Jaime Questell