'Pop' goes the rocket: Arts Fest workshop to ignite kids' curiosity in STEM

Festival-goers invited to make pop rockets July 13 at Penn State's Art of Discovery booth at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts

Varun Mandalaparthy, a graduate student in Penn State's Department of Chemistry, places an effervescent tablet in a rocket prior to launch. Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For chemist Gabby Di Domizio, building rockets isn’t rocket science.

The doctoral student in Penn State’s chemistry department has been crafting homemade model rockets with her dad and brother since she was a child growing up in Lansdale. Afternoons spent in the backyard launching their aeronautical inventions are not only some of the best memories of her childhood, but the catalyst that sparked her lifelong interest in science.

Di Domizio will share her love for STEM when she and other members of Penn State’s Chemistry Graduate Student Association (GSA) lead a science, technology, engineering and math-focused workshop on building “pop” rockets at the University’s third annual Art of Discovery booth at the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts.

Festival-goers of all ages are invited to stop by to assemble and launch their own DIY rockets from 3 to 5 p.m. on Saturday, July 13, at the Art of Discovery booth next to Willard Building. The workshop will be one of many free hands-on activities and demonstrations highlighting the art of science and the science of art, hosted at the booth by educators and students from across Penn State.

“Helping kids construct their own rockets will be a flashback to my childhood,” said Di Domizio, who is external liaison for the Chemistry Graduate Student Association and spends her days at Penn State developing synthetic routes for making new nanoparticles. “Model rockets were my entryway into science, and eventually chemistry, and I hope to help inspire a child like my family did for me.”

Gabriella Di Domizio Credit: Patrick Mansell / Penn StateCreative Commons

Science behind the pop

A pop rocket can come together with a few everyday supplies and a dose of creativity, according to Drew Veenis, chemistry graduate student and outreach chair for the Chemistry GSA.

“We’re hoping to show kids — and kids of all ages — that science is creative and fun,” Veenis said. “Hopefully we’ll get a little bit of a science lesson in there, too.”

Participants will design and build their one-of-a-kind rockets using paper and film canisters, which will serve as engines. After dropping effervescent antacid tablets into the water-filled canisters, carbon dioxide will fill the tube. Within seconds, gas pressure will begin to form and eventually increase enough to pop the cap off the canister and propel the rocket into the air.

While these rockets won’t make it to outer space, they will camouflage valuable scientific lessons like Newton’s third law of motion within an engaging activity, according to Ryan Szukalo, a chemistry graduate student and treasurer of the Chemistry GSA, who will help lead the demo.

“Creativity and science go hand in hand. As scientists, it’s important to show that what we do isn’t only textbooks and tests,” said Szukalo, who also plays the piano. “Being creative is essential to our work in the lab — from collaborating across disciplines, to thinking outside the box, to testing new approaches to solve problems.”

As part of its mission, the Chemistry GSA provides graduate students at Penn State with opportunities for professional development, including industry tours and résumé workshops, and helps foster community within the department and other areas throughout the University.

The group also organizes events to help encourage kids to explore careers in STEM and increase diversity in the sciences. Each semester, the chemistry students host events for children in local schools and Girl Scout troops throughout Centre County, as well as participate in the Eberly College of Science’s annual Haunted-U Halloween-themed science festival and Exploration-U community science programs in Bellefonte, Bald Eagle, State College and Centre Hall, among other events.

The art of exploration

“My dad was an engineer and he exposed me to the basics of science, but not every child has that experience, which is why anything our organization can do to offer that opportunity is so important,” Veenis said. “For me, it’s most fulfilling when we reach a population of kids who might not know it yet, but who have an interest in science that just needs to be brought out.”

For Di Domizio, who studied visual arts in college and is also a sculptor, creativity can be a window to making scientific connections to real life.

“With the pop rocket experiment, I’m curious to see how each child will be inspired by different elements of the demo — whether it’s the art of coloring and designing the rocket, the astronomical or engineering connection, or the chemical reaction that gives the rocket its name,” she said.

The takeaway will be staying positive and sticking with the experiment — by adjusting water levels — until the rocket launches.

“In my backyard, I learned that sometimes parachutes didn’t work, rockets never came back, or they didn’t launch at all. In the studio, I’ve had sculptures fall apart in my hands,” Di Domizio said. “Whether you’re an artist or scientist, having fun is the most important part. If you don’t get it the first time, that’s OK. Keep going.”

To learn more about what’s in store at the Art of Discovery booth, take a look at the complete schedule of free demonstrations hosted by Penn State students and educators.

Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

Last Updated June 17, 2019