Arizona 4-H Wins National Science Experiment Competition With 'Rockets to the Rescue'
Arizona 4-H has won this year’s competition for the design of the 4-H 2014 National Youth Science Day experiment.

By Shelley Littin, University Relations - Communications
May 7, 2014


A 4-H participant proudly hoists his rocket, built as a trial of the National 4-H Science Day Experiment "Rockets to the Rescue," designed by Arizona 4-H in collaboration with multiple local partners.
A 4-H participant proudly hoists his rocket, built as a trial of the National 4-H Science Day Experiment "Rockets to the Rescue," designed by Arizona 4-H in collaboration with multiple local partners. (Photo by Kirk Astroth)

Kids are usually told to not throw their food.

But this year, in a nationwide 4-H youth science experiment, kids across the country will not only be encouraged to throw their food, they’ll be taught how to build a rocket to launch it into the sky.

Arizona 4-H, a program of Cooperative Extension in the University of Arizona College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, has won a competition among state 4-H organizations to design a science experiment for the 4-H 2014 National Youth Science Day, happening Oct. 8. Along with national recognition, the Arizona team receives a $20,000 cash prize.

National Youth Science Day is an annual 4-H endeavor to encourage kids to develop interest in STEM fields by hosting a nationwide science day, in which 4-H youth participate in a single science experiment. Since it was begun in 2008, more than 5 million 4-H youth across the country have participated in 4-H Science Day experiments.

Each year, one winning experiment design is selected from proposals submitted by 20 to 30 state 4-H organizations. The proposals are judged by members of the National 4-H Council and a review team that includes scientists and engineers.

Design of this year’s winning aerospace engineering experiment, called “Rockets to the Rescue,” was “truly a cross-campus, cross-community collaboration,” said Kirk Astroth, director of Arizona 4-H Youth Development.

Astroth designed the experiment along with colleagues in UA Cooperative Extension and Pima County 4-H, the UA STEM Learning Center, Flandrau Planetarium, and faculty in the UA College of Engineering, the College of Education and College of Agriculture and Life Science’s Department of Nutritional Sciences, and collaborators at Raytheon Inc. in Tucson, Northern Arizona University's Center for Science Teaching & Learning, and the Arizona Center for Afterschool Excellence.

For the Science Day experiment, 4-Hers across the country will be presented with a fictional scenario: People are starving on a remote, isolated Pacific atoll called Ceres (named after the Roman goddess of agriculture) and the kids have been asked by NASA to build a rocket that can be launched from mainland, travel over the ocean and deliver high-energy food to the starving population.

“The idea for the scenario was that there had been a worldwide disruption of communications systems so that boats and planes couldn’t get to the island,” Astroth said. “The only way to get to the island was to send a rocket.”

Sound far-fetched? Not really. In November, just one month after Astroth and the others who had contributed to the project submitted their proposal for the national competition, Typhoon Haiyan struck the Philippines, virtually isolating the islands from foreign aid. 

“Most of the large boats were too far away, planes couldn’t land because the runways were torn up, and helicopters can’t fly long distances,” Astroth said. “It became a food security issue.”

To rescue the starving population on fictional Ceres, children participating in the 2014 National Youth Science Day science experiment must design and build a lightweight, aerodynamic rocket, load it with high-energy snacks and launch it at a target.

The project will teach youth about aerospace engineering, nutrition and consumer economics.

“They can plot launch angle and distance data on a graph. Then, using the graph, they can predict the distance that the rocket will travel when launched at a certain angle or, if they want a certain distance, look at the graph to determine the angle they must launch at,” said Curt Peters, associate agent of 4-H Youth Development at the UA, who contributed the trajectory physics component of the project proposal.

“The experiment gives youth hands-on experience with the science experiments and concepts that they might not otherwise get in their experience in school and in everyday life. It lets them solve the problem in their own unique way,” explained Eric Larsen, Pima County 4-H agent, who also assisted with the design of the experiment.

In addition to the accuracy of their rockets, the kids must take into account the weight of the payload, the need for it to arrive intact – food that splatters upon landing isn’t much use – and the calorie and nutrition content of the food. “The kids have to research energy bars to find the most nutrient-dense yet lowest-cost option,” Astroth explained.

“The process of making a design to solve a problem, build, test and evaluate that design is an important life skill. The earlier that young people have this experience, the better,” said John Whiteside, a Tucson resident who recently won the Western region Volunteer of the Year Award from the National 4-H Council through its Regional 4-H Salute to Excellence Volunteer Recognition Program. Whiteside coordinated Raytheon volunteers and worked with the assembled team brainstorming ideas for the experiment proposal.

“An experiment like this can inspire and motivate youth in their future studies,” Whiteside added.

Jeff Burgess, professor and Director of the Community, Environment and Policy Division at the UA’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, said it's great training for the kids who participate. “One great aspect of the project is that it involves kids working in teams across disciplines, which will prepare them well for the future.”


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