Rocket science: Families seek to keep kids engaged during Utah COVID-19 classroom closures

Internet Education 2020-07-18 06:52:38

Since all Utah public schools have moved learning to in-home and online activities for at least two weeks as a coronavirus precaution, local families are doing what they can to keep kids engaged.

Like hundreds of other schools across the state, activity inside Summit Elementary on Friday morning was kept to a minimum. But in the grassy field just to the north, Smithfield resident Steve Wassom launches compressed air rockets with three grandchildren, Liza, Dallin and Lydia. It’s easy to see the appeal of launching rockets — it gets you outside but lets you stay 6 feet away from people not in your household, a key part of health officials’ “social distancing” recommendations for all Americans.

Wassom switches the battery-powered compressor off at about 50 psi and they all stand back a few feet as the kids start the countdown. At zero, Liza Wassom pulls a string attached to the release pin. In a shower of water, the 2-liter bottle spirals dozens of feet into the air, a small plastic parachute deploying as it nears the ground — or the school’s roof, in this case. It looks like this will be the last launch of the day.

“This is just a hobby,” Steve Wassom said. “We do water rockets, we do air rockets, we do … solid-propellant rockets.”

Compressed-air rockets are a popular do-it-yourself activity with families, science teachers and youth groups, but few have an expert like Wassom on hand. He plans to retire this year after nearly 40 years working on rockets with Thiokol, the Space Dynamics Lab and the National Reconnaissance Office. Wassom has written computer models to calculate the bottle rockets’ flight time and distance for the variables of water and air pressure.

As governments, businesses and schools encourage people to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Wassom’s work hasn’t changed drastically. For the past five years, he’s worked from home for the National Reconnaissance Office. But he also travels somewhere in the U.S. about once a month, making sure rocket hardware is ready to launch.

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“I spend most of my career designing the parts, and now my job is to see if other people have designed them correctly,” Wassom said.

During the viral outbreak, those trips have been replaced with watching people’s presentations via video conferencing.

“So yeah, of course we don’t get in planes anymore till this blows over,” Wassom said.

While his grandkids say they miss seeing their teachers and friends, Wassom said they seem to be taking well to online and at-home learning.

It’s not clear when Liza, Dallin and Lydia will return to the classroom, but on Friday, at least, the family sent a 2-liter bottle to school. Luckily, they found someone in the building willing to retrieve their rocket from the roof before heading home.


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