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Whitehall middle school students have a blast launching rockets

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Meghan Bradley, a seventh-grader at J.E. Harrison Middle School, retrieves a rocket that her group had assembled and fired off at the school last week.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
Michael Magnotti, right, a seventh-grader at J.E. Harrison Middle School, talks to classmate Billy Andrews about the rocket his group assembled and fired at the school field last week.
Stephanie Hacke | South Hills Record
J.E. Harrison Middle School seventh grade science teacher Kristin Papariello fires a rocket into the sky on the school field as students look on from a distance.

They lifted the goggles over their eyes and stood back nearly 25 yards.

The countdown — “Five. Four. Three. Two.” — came at a quick pace.

A sizzle then a swish, and the rocket disappeared into the sky for several seconds.

“This is awesome. I love science,” J.E. Harrison Middle School seventh-grader Harrison Huggins, 13, said as his classmates searched for remnants of the rocket that had returned to the ground.

The rockets, propelled by a tiny engine and set off on the school field, could have gone as high as 1,000 feet into the air, according to the packaging. They likely went several hundred feet high, J.E. Harrison Middle School seventh-grade science teacher Kristin Papariello said.

All 300 seventh-graders at J.E. Harrison Middle School in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District participated in a rocket launch last week as the “exclamation point” to a beginning of the year unit on rocket science, said Michael Kaleta, seventh-grade science teacher and science department chairman at J.E. Harrison.

The project was a STEM — or Science, Technology, Engineering and Math initiative — which school leaders are focusing on this year in the science department in all three grades.

In science classes, then, through one project the students are learning science, or about combustion and explosions and actions and reactions; technology, where they recorded a video statement talking about their experiences with the rocket launch; engineering, where they learned to design and build a rocket; and math, where they will calculate the speed and distance of the rocket traveled.

The “project-based learning,” too, helps students to solve problems on their own, putting them in possible real-life situations, Baldwin-Whitehall director of programs Darlene DeFilippo said.

“They're developing solutions for a challenge,” she said.

Bethani Rechtorik, 12, said she became frustrated because her group couldn't get the fins to properly fit their rocket and they had trouble with the launch. But that was a lesson, she said, because in the end, they found a way to make it work.

“When you come across something that you can't do, don't stop,” she said. “You won't know how it ends if you stop.”

Not all of the rockets had perfect launches. That was just another lesson for the students, though.

“We had hurdles,” Kaleta told his students. “We can learn from that. The first rocket that ever launched wasn't perfect. What would you do differently to make it better the second time through?”

Students examined their rockets after they returned to the ground to see what could have gone wrong. Most of them said it was pretty clear they had put something in the wrong place that prevented their rocket from going high or straight enough.

Still, they all had a blast with the project.

“I love school. I've loved school since I was a child,” said Michael Magnotti, 12, a seventh-grader.

And that's a big part of it.

“If you can get kids enthused or inspired, it's just a precursor to achievement,” DeFilippo said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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