Father and son, retired US Air Force veterans, Mike and Lane Gilchrist told students at Mount Pleasant Elementary School to look skyward this week as they presented their Space STEM outreach program to students.
Fourth graders were able to launch rockets they designed out of card stock.
After making their own rockets, the students took them outside to launch as STEM Outreach leader and educator Nicole Tibbetts counted, shouting, “T-minus, three! Of them! A!”
Using a launch pad made up of a button control box, PVC pipes and a bicycle pump, the students launched their self-designed rockets into the air, watching how far they could fly.
Some reached 100 feet, landing up to 100 meters.
Students cheered and shouted for their classmates to take turns firing rockets into the sky. The cheers grew louder as teachers and others stood up to launch their own rockets.
After the launch was complete, Mike Gilchrist gave the students an official sticker emblem for Space Systems Command.
The program is a partnership between the US Space Force Space Systems Command and the nonprofit Space STEM Outreach program.
Principal Julie Tidwell said fourth-grade student Taylor Tucker’s rocket traveled the greatest distance.
“We are thrilled to be the ones chosen for this outreach that they have done,” she said.
Lane Gilchrist, formerly of Columbia but now based in Los Angeles, created the Space STEM program. Mike Gilchrist, who is a resident of Columbia, worked with his friend Jerry Sands to make the visit a reality for his son’s team at Mt. Pleasant.
The program is sponsored by the United States Air Force and Space Force, he said, with the goal of emphasizing education in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
“The coalition’s goal is to get more children into STEM careers and professions,” said Lane Gilchrist. “We need them. There are so many emerging jobs that will require these skills and disciplines.”
Mount Pleasant was the first Tennessee school the Gilchrists visited, bringing students the space program from kindergarten through sixth grade. The visiting team from Los Angeles gave a presentation based on space, rockets and satellites.
The elementary school became the first in Tennessee to be STEM certified in 2020, and the programs offered have increased student interest in learning more about science and engineering fields.
“Since listening and learning more about STEM and the US Space Force, the kids have been very excited,” Tidwell said.
Tidwell also recognized the need for more girls to enter STEM careers and appreciated seeing all the students experience the rocket launch.
With each visit to the program as they visit schools across the country, Lane hopes to engage as many children as possible using interactive engineering lessons like designing and launching model rockets.
He says the activities will build students’ self-confidence and encourage their ability to do math and science, perhaps opening doors for a future in STEM careers, training and internships.
Recognizing the challenges of STEM fields of study and the tendency of students to lose interest when studying gets tough, Lane hopes to create pathways for students.
“There is not just one way. There are many different ways to get to where we are,” he said. “There are a lot of opportunities, so by doing this we hope to build a bridge for real pathways. [STEM careers].”
The hope lies in the STEM Coalition’s mission to inspire, innovate and educate, Tibbetts said.
“The reason why we talk to children from kindergarten is first of all that when we go to schools, we ask ‘who likes math?’ All arms up,” Tibbetts said. “But by the time you hit fourth or fifth grade, it just hits.”
Tibbetts said the team’s research and data suggests that at a certain point when studying gets tough, some students tend to lose interest in STEM education.
By visiting students with their curriculum, the team hopes to counter this trend.
“We can’t be here every day, but we hope to be able to visit the schools we do, once a year, from kindergarten to sixth grade,” Lane Gilchrist said.