Students learn STEM skills through bottle rockets

by Isabel Loos

Nobody ever could have guessed that Northwest Indian College, a tiny two-year college that doesn’t even have an engineering program, would have a nationally recognized rocket club achieving goals that many schools could never dream of.

It all started with launching small bottle rockets in class as a fun, interesting way to learn and understand physics. When the students were suddenly invited to a competition in Wisconsin, they were a bit surprised. They didn’t have much knowledge about serious rocket launches, let alone any rockets, but they knew they could figure it out.

They bought three rocket kits in preparation for the competition and that was when they really started learning about how rockets work.

Northwest Indian College students and members of the Space Center at a competition in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Gary Brandt.
Northwest Indian College students and members of the Space Center at a competition in Wisconsin. Photo courtesy Gary Brandt.

“We learn stuff on accident. We learn stuff just because we’re doing stuff,” said Gary Brandt, an instructor at NWIC. Brandt has been working at the college since 1989 in the areas of computer information technology, physics, and rockets and robotics. He is the advisor for their “Space Center,” which was just something that a student started calling it somewhat jokingly. However, that came in handy when the club got a call from NASA.

“A woman from NASA called, and she said ‘I didn’t know you were big enough to have a space center’,” Brandt said. He then explained the joke and told her that they are really just a small group of students who like launching rockets, even they don’t really have a space center or rocket program.

“She laughed and said, ‘Well regardless, you are doing what we want which is getting underrepresented students involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematic) programs,” Brandt recalled. NASA would give them $5,000 per year for 2 years to help them continue their rocket exploration. It was a huge milestone and gave the students in the program more confidence that they could really succeed. Since then, they have gotten some other contributions from NASA and other organizations which has enabled the program to be completely self-sufficient. The money goes towards buying rockets and whatever else they might need for their competitions. However, they are still very resourceful and use things like bubble levels and mouse traps instead of expensive tools.

Clearly the NWIC space center doesn’t need all of the fancy digital scales, specialized parts, and intricate motors. They still place high in competitions against prestigious schools like Vanderbilt and MIT. They got second place in a legged-lander challenge, and one of their rockets won an aesthetic award at a competition in Wisconsin in April. Not to mention, they are the first tribal team to create a rocket that went faster than the speed of sound. It will be displayed in the Indian Smithsonian Museum.

“I’m pretty proud of that,” said Christian Cultee, a student at NWIC. “It really tested what I could do.” Cultee is one of five students who have become NASA interns. Some have gone to NASA’s Ames center in California, and Cultee is headed to NASA’s Goddard center in Maryland this summer. This is his third year returning as in intern, and because of all of the experience he is getting, he has gotten offers from many big universities including Perdue.

In addition to internships, the rocket club gives students a lot of hands on experience and the opportunity to solve problems they wouldn’t face anywhere else. It is clear that students participate because not only is it a great learning experience, but it is also a lot of fun. Raven Redhorn, another student involved, is studying to become a general manager of a hotel or similar entity.

“It’s got me thinking about changing my major,” he said about the program because it is just so enjoyable.”
Student Murray Phair wants to pursue computer engineering, partly because the time he has spent involved with the rockets.

This year, there are 12 students on the team, and about half of them are female. Since they have been going to competitions and doing so well, they have really started to make a name for themselves.

“We ‘re getting a lot more recognition and a lot more respect,” Cultee said. Most people might not expect such a small school to succeed as much as they have, and this is only the beginning.

“We’re growing and doing good things and having a good impact on people,” Brandt said. “And it’s so much fun, it’s just unreal.”


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