Rocket science? For these kids, pressure is fun

UCSF Summer Science Camp

Every good scientific exploration starts with questions, and at UCSF’s 2017 Summer Science Camp, the recent “bottle rocket engineering and launch day” was no different.

The camp’s nearly 50 fifth- and sixth-graders started the morning in a classroom on the Parnassus campus, discussing pictures displayed on the large screen: a car with a sloped roof and a rear spoiler, a kite aloft, a runner with an open parachute tied to his back.

“What type of pressure are we going to use to lift our rockets?” asked camp co-director Todd Alpert, a third-year student at the UCSF School of Dentistry.

The answer came from several directions: “Air.”

“What happens when the air goes in?” asked Alpert.

“It goes up,” said one boy, pointing towards the ceiling.

“What happens with more pressure in the bottle?”

“It’ll go higher!”


Camp co-director Alishia King chats with campers as they get ready to walk to Golden Gate Park for the bottle rocket launch.


Jaylene Wong, fifth grade (left), shows her bottle rocket to another camper.

Bottle rockets were the prominent feature of day four of UCSF’s free weeklong science camp. The camp was conceived and launched 10 years ago by Heather Hertema—when she was a first-year UCSF PharmD student—to bring science fun to kids from underserved communities in the San Francisco area.

Other activities included concocting slime, making liquid nitrogen ice cream, handling live exotic insects, building boats, and extracting DNA from strawberries. At the same time, campers learned the critical thinking skills and processes that make all that science possible, guided by volunteer UCSF faculty and graduate students who serve as leaders and teachers for the week.

kids building a boat

Campers also build cardboard boats, which are later raced in a swimming pool.

Answering the question, “What is science?”

Armed with the rudiments of aerodynamics, pressure, and wind resistance, as well as two-liter plastic soda bottles, construction paper, tape, and pens, the rocket scientists went to work.

“What can we put on our rockets?” asked camp counselor Alishia King, a second-year UCSF PharmD student.

“Put a point at the top to break the air, like when you’re swimming, you put your hands together to break the water,” said Skylar Henderson, 9.

“Great,” said King. “Anything else?”

“Wings!” came one answer, and another: “Decorations!”

“If you want the rockets to go high, do you poke holes in it?” King asked.

“No! The air will escape. You want it to pressurize and go up,” said Adam Mokhemer, 11. He jumped into the middle of the circle of desks to make his point. “It’s like when you’re in your parents’ car, if you open the windows all the air goes out!”


Skylar Henderson, fifth grade, with her bottle rocket.

Asked, “What is science?” Skylar replied: “It means doing experiments to try to figure out answers to the question you have. I think about the scientific method. Like if we mix borax and glue, what will happen? You have to make your hypothesis, which is what you predict will happen. It has to have an ‘if’ in it.”

Did she come to camp because she wants to be a scientist? “I want to be a teacher, but a teacher has to teach science, so this helps me,” she said, wrapping her bottle in blue construction paper.

Wing design brought out individual creativity, with one group looking online at airplanes for ideas, others cutting out simple triangles, feathered shapes or curved penguin-like appendages.

Crystal Chen, 9, of Daly City, reinforced her nose cone with duct tape “to make it stronger.” In addition to a mouth, eyes, nose, and eyebrows, she added a small fan made of folded paper. Why? “It might get hot.”

To the park for countdown and launch

After lunch, the campers and counselors headed downhill to Golden Gate Park, their bottles partially filled with water to provide the reaction mass for compressed air. One by one, the counselors attached the bottles to a specially rigged cap attached to a bicycle pump. They were strategically located upwind from the campers, who were gathered 20 feet away in the broad green meadow.

Skylar was first up. “Watch for the bubbles,” a counselor instructed, pumping air into her bottle. “Ok, pull, pull!” Skylar yanked a long rope attached to the pump cap, and her rocket shot up, arcing high overhead and spraying everyone with water drops.

“That was really cool!” she yelled, running to retrieve her bottle.

boy pulls on rope

A camper has to pull hard on the rope to launch the bottle rocket.

Kids started predicting the trajectory and trying to catch the rockets downfield. Jaylene Wong, 11, was the first to catch her own rocket—something she tried for by pulling the rope earlier than most so it didn’t fly as far. “Master physicist,” said one of her campmates.

Rocket partners Lily Oliver, 11, and Irene Wong, 9 (“and a half”), opted for four wings and crafted a long, slender nose cone, so “it will go faster through the air,” said Lily. They added a red curlicue tail, inked stars, and a sign: “GOAT: Greatest of All Times.”

With Lily recording the action on camera, Irene crouched low, putting her whole body weight into jerking the rocket free.

“It went so high!” Lily shouted, jumping up and down as their bottle sailed back to earth.

kids launching bottle rocket

A successful blast off at Summer Science Camp in Golden Gate Park.

kids cheering

Campers celebrate at bottle rocket launch day.

Looking over her group of budding scientists, King said: “It’s cool to be giving this experience to kids at such a young age. Some of these students are so smart. It gets them thinking.”

“Alishia has it right,” commented UCSF School of Pharmacy Vice Dean Sharon L. Youmans, PharmD, MPH, who oversees graduate-level education in the School. “It’s as much about learning how to think through problems as it is the specific problem at hand. It’s a powerful skill and we’re thrilled the campers are learning to apply it.”

Image credit: all images by Cindy Chew


Ten years of kids exploring the facts—and fun—of science

In 2007, UCSF held its first Summer Science Camp. Since then, more than 500 fifth- and sixth-grade students from underserved communities in the San Francisco area have had a week of hands-on fun learning the science behind bottle rockets, flotation, slime, gravity, and DNA extraction.

We catch up with a camp alumna who is studying neuroscience in college, speak to camp founder, Heather Hertema, PharmD ’10, and go to camp to see kids build and launch bottle rockets.

Fri Jul 7, 2017 This page:
Rocket science? For these kids, pressure is fun
Thu Jun 29, 2017 Camp founder continues quest to bring science to kids
Tue Jun 20, 2017 A decade of launching rockets, cardboard boats—and kids into STEM


School of Pharmacy, PharmD Degree Program

About the School: The UCSF School of Pharmacy aims to solve the most pressing health care problems and strives to ensure that each patient receives the safest, most effective treatments. Our discoveries seed the development of novel therapies, and our researchers consistently lead the nation in NIH funding. The School’s doctor of pharmacy (PharmD) degree program, with its unique emphasis on scientific thinking, prepares students to be critical thinkers and leaders in their field.