Participants of the fourth annual Rowan Blast Off rocketry competition at the South Jersey Technology Park. Staff Writer / Kailey Bertelson.

At the South Jersey Technology Park, students from middle school to college level came together to launch rockets at the fourth annual Rowan Blast Off on Saturday.

Totaling 176 participants from schools all over New Jersey and Pennsylvania, students spent the last few weeks in and outside of class building rockets with guidance from their teachers and advisers in hopes of launching at Blast Off. For most of these students, this was the first time they ever built and successfully launched a rocket.

Rowan Blast Off is brought to life by sponsors from the Henry M. Rowan College of Engineering, NavAir, Estes Rockets and Rowan’s American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).

NavAir understands the importance of early STEM introductory and project-based learning, which allow students to apply their skills tactically at events like Blast Off.

This is NavAir’s first year involved with the event. After hearing firsthand from two Rowan engineering alumni about the event, NavAir jumped in to help. It spring-boarded student involvement by providing grants and rocket kits to about 20 local schools.

Gaetan Mangano, the NavAir Education outreach site leader of the Lakehurst center, takes great pride in introducing students to the field at a young age.

“Education in STEM offers hands-on learning, rather than stuffing their brain full of stuff they’ll be tested on. Building a rocket is fun and teaches them about what they actually accomplished,” Mangano said.

The supervisor of educational technology for Toms River regional schools, Tiffany Lucey, is responsible for co-authoring a $250,000 grant with the Office of Naval Research.

“Blast Off shows students what’s possible and has them use skills in math and science to find synthesis in this event that they can bring in and out of the classroom,” Lucey said.

The grant allowed six Toms River schools to enter Blast Off for the first time. Before the launch, Toms River regional schools hosted a training day with several STEM organizations that prepared faculty from all over New Jersey.

Michelle Lepre teaches a STEM elective at Winslow Township Middle School.

“Not only do you get kids excited about STEM, but you get the word out into the community. It makes rocketry building so much more real and shows how fun it actually is,” Lepre said.

Pietro Sparacio, president of Rowan’s AIAA, spent months organizing Blast Off. Keeping the students safe and happy was Sparacio’s top priority. His duties included ensuring all waivers were signed and air officers were on site, hosting a bottle rocket clinic and having favorable food trucks.  

As Blast Off continues to grow, the most rewarding moments throughout the day arise when schools promise Sparacio they’ll be coming back next year and will try to get their surrounding schools to enter as well.

One of the competing teams, the Civil Air Patrol, has a curriculum centered around aerospace. Team representative Jeff Polizzi shared personal insight on the program.

“The cadets get to learn about building a rocket and the types of things they can do on Rowan’s campus in the future,” Polizzi said.

Blast Off is where many students are first introduced to the wide world of STEM and for some, it’s events like these that lead them to pursue a career in the field.

Ryan Eno, a freshman engineering major, built and launched three rockets in 2017. Today, he’s back at Blast Off supporting his high school as they launch even more rockets.

“You can go in so many directions with STEM. You can conduct research and design structures that will help people,” Eno said.

Olguta Vilceanu, an associate professor in the public relations and advertising department, got involved with the event in 2017 when her youngest daughter first competed. She now volunteers as the faculty adviser and perfectly harmonizes the world of rocketry and communications.

“This proves what Rowan is all about, their access to excellence. You see the type of collaboration between engineering and advertising and public relations students. We create an event where students with all different sets of skills and abilities come and try their hand at building rockets,” Vilceanu said.

Vilceanu knows that there is no limit to what these students can do. Providing a supportive environment filled with sportsmanship and eagerness to learn proves that students can accomplish things that otherwise seem way out of reach.

The rocketry competition also gave the students 12 opportunities to place in four types of flights. Villa Joseph Marie High School’s team, “Apple Pie From Scratch,” placed in three flights, “Star Chasers” from Nazareth Academy High School placed twice and the Ann Street Middle School won the school spirit award.

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