Yes, it is rocket science

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Mitzy Rodriguez couldn't help laughing as the rocket she and her classmates had worked to build finally took to the air. In an empty field on the Fort Walla Walla grounds, a rocket made from a 2-liter bottle and filled with some water exploded from its base after air was continuously pumped into it through PVC pipe, releasing a stream of water as it flew through the air.

The sudden release of water caught most of the students by surprise, and splashed them thoroughly.

Rodriguez, 16, was among nine students finishing up a week-long exploration of science and engineering through the Hispanic Youth Exploring Engineering and Sciences camp. Held at Washington State University in the past, the program was hosted for local youth at Walla Walla University this year in partnership with Bonneville Power Administration.

"I wasn't exactly sure what it was all about, but I decided to come," said Rodriguez, whose Spanish teacher at Walla Walla High School encouraged her to check it out.

The week became a chance to learn, to bond with friends, and to gain life lessons.

"We built rockets, we built robots, we built bridges," she said. "It was hard work, and it made your brain function more than usual during the summer, but it was great."

Bill Erickson, a program coordinator, said Walla Walla students have taken part in the camp since 2005. Erickson, a natural resource specialist for BPA, said he noticed several years ago a need for young talent in science and engineering careers. The HYEES program has been one way to expose local Latino students to fields that are to be in high demand in the future.

After funding cuts meant no HYEES camp last year, Erickson worked to bring the engineering and science experience to students locally. The week-long HYEES program was hosted at Walla Walla University in early August, and drew support from Walla Walla Community College, the local Corps of Engineers, Fort Walla Walla Museum, and Nelson Irrigation, among other agencies.

"It's amazing the resources that we have here in this community," Erickson said.

Since introducing that first group of students to science and engineering, the summer sessions have had a big impact on Latino youth. Several students that have taken a part in the program have graduated from high school and gone on to top universities or colleges to study sciences or engineering.

Last year's graduating class alone saw one student head to Whitman College to study electrical engineering, and another go on to Gonzaga University to prepare for studies in medicine. Both earned full scholarships to pursue their studies. Other past participants are finishing engineering degrees, one at MIT.

Although this year's campers missed traveling to WSU in Pullman and living on campus for a week, the program still offered a variety of activities at Walla Walla University and around town.

By Friday, students put team-building skills to the test as they prepared to launch the 2-liter bottle rockets they'd built together days earlier.

The week started with tackling a ropes course that highlighted team building.

Students were introduced to the basics of science and engineering careers. To explore those fields, students built bridges, assembled robots and designed aerodynamic rockets. A day was spent at the Walla Walla Community College campus, where students worked in the William S. Grant Water and Environmental Center and visited the nursing program.

Lectures and sessions also focused on leadership, self-identity, and even time management.

Selene Reyes, 16, said what she gained from the camp was learning that she works well in a team.

"Here I came out of my shell, because I used to be really shy," she said.

Reyes said her parents weren't sure if she should participate in the camp. Her father felt she could be more useful helping around the house, watching younger siblings for that week.

"Then he realized it's better for me to come here than be home all day," she said.

A tour of the community college's nursing program as part of the camp was a highlight for Reyes, who said she wants to study nursing. The camp overall gave students a good view of the possibilities after high school.

"It really opened my mind to what I can do in the future," she said.

Maria P. Gonzalez can be reached at mariagonzalez@wwub.com or 526-8317.
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