Inspired and a little impatient, Callia Bast, a high-school senior from Miami, Fla., collected her team’s supply of polystyrene foam, moved to another table and assembled a box with the aid of a hot-glue gun.
The box would hold and insulate an astronaut – that is, a raw egg – in the nosecone of her team’s water rocket. She had had enough brainstorming. “I prefer building things to sitting at a computer or just talking,” said Bast, a student enrolled in Rice ELITE (Emerging Leaders in Technology and Engineering), a pre-college engineering summer program for students in grades nine through 12.
The four week-long sessions in June are organized by the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership (RCEL) at Rice University. Eighty students, 20 per session, enrolled.
“Think outside the limitations normally presented to you,” Kaz Karwowski, executive director of RCEL, told the students. “You don’t know what the answer looks like until you develop it.”
That morning’s assignment, called Blast Off, was to build a working water rocket using a two-liter soda bottle. The mission would be rated a success if the rocket stayed aloft for at least four seconds and the egg remained intact.
“Don’t leave your knowledge of physics and science at the door,” said Cesare Wright, an RCEL lecturer in engineering leadership. “You want everything to contribute to the functionality of the design, or at least not inhibit it.”
Bast’s teammates were Amrit Chandar, a senior at Westlake High School in Austin; James Kristaq, a sophomore at Tompkins High School in Katy; and Ayushi Oswal, a junior at Elkins High School in Missouri City. Their coach, busy documenting the team’s activities on his laptop, was Alan Scherman, a sophomore in mechanical engineering at Rice.
“It’s about the engineering, the plan they come up with, but it’s also about leadership,” said Scherman, who paid most attention to Kristaq, the group’s nominal leader. “But they do seem to follow Callia.”
After 45 minutes the teams carried their completed rockets from Rayzor Hall to a nearby field on the Rice campus. There, Karwowski set up a bicycle pump and a toy rocket launcher, and the teams took turns blasting off their spacecraft.
With Kristaq pumping, the team’s first launch was a dud. Karwowski gave them a second chance to go airborne, with Bast pumping. The rocket made a perfect vertical ascent, higher than any of the others, remained airborne for roughly eight seconds and landed next to the pump and launcher.
With her teammates cheering, Bast disassembled the foam nosecone she had made and discovered that the tissue paper-wrapped egg had been scrambled. None seemed to care. They were still marveling at the flawless ascent. Bast said, “It was beautiful.”