Raising expectations with high-flying activities

Published 7:00 pm Saturday, July 21, 2018

The skies were clear and the winds light and breezy on Friday morning, which was good for more than a dozen girls and boys at Lake Meade Park that that were building and decorating rockets.

The activity was arranged for Suffolk Public Library’s Family Fridays in partnership with the Virginia Chapter of the All Girls STEM Society, with STEM standing for science, technology, engineering and math.

The society was founded by Veronica Tang and Eleni Fafoutis. Fafoutis, 18, revitalized the Virginia chapter when she relocated to Virginia Beach in 2015. This chapter has a strong focus on serving underprivileged students in addition to young women, according to the nonprofit’s website.

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“We’re going to be teaching the kids how to build their own little paper rockets and teach them all the basics of it as well as the reasons behind it,” Fafoutis said as materials were unpacked at park tables.

Fafoutis and her mother, Cassie Fafoutis, brought construction paper, stickers and plenty of tape for the youngsters to get creative. Suffolk Public Library teen services senior librarian Asa Heyward, youth and family services coordinator Vahlerie Beausejour and volunteer Logan Harris, 14, brought a generator to power launch pads and helped stock the tables.

“One of our goals is to provide STEM programs at the library,” Heyward said as he organized tables. “This is a great opportunity to partner with an organization, particularly to get young girls into STEM.”

Parents and their eager children followed Eleni’s directions closely. They wrapped construction paper around PVC pipes to form the body of their rockets, then curved another piece of paper for the nose cone. While they worked, they were asked questions about what they learned, and each correct answer earned prize choice from the pink chest.

Paper fins at the base had to be spaced evenly for balance, and before each coin was attached to give the rockets needed weight, Eleni had the kids close their eyes and make a wish.

The kids also got to decorate their rockets gleefully with a slew of colors and stickers. Lillie Dabord, 6, built a red-and-white rocket with her mother Samantha Dabord. It was covered in stickers of cupcakes, clouds, carriages and princesses.

There were two launch pads to send the rockets airborne, and the participants lined up to see theirs go up in turns from a safe distance. A few prizes were awarded for winners in head-to-head races to see which rocket flew the highest. They soared hundreds of feet into the air, some past the treetops.

“These are not your kiddie rockets,” Eleni said.

Eleni is a seasoned and awarded rocket enthusiast. She’s a two-time national finalist for Team America Rocketry Challenge — the world’s largest student rocket contest — and a member of the National Association of Rocketry and American Institute of Aeronautics, along with Astronautics Orange County Rocketry. She ranked first place overall in the Student Payload and Rocketry Challenge in 2015.

She said that rockets were what first piqued her interest in STEM roughly five years ago and that they could be a fun hook for more young girls.

“A lot of the problems that make kids disinterested in STEM I think is because they’re not getting it in the right way,” she said. “They think that science is just from a textbook sitting in school. They’re not getting it in a fun and engaging way. Rockets are unique enough and rare enough that kids will say, ‘Wow, this is super interesting.’”

One of those is Kristen Brown’s daughter Kaya, 6. The Windsor mother brought her daughter out to the last All Girls STEM Society rocket launch with the library a few months ago. Brown said her daughter wanted to be a scientist and that she was excited to build another rocket.

“I think she likes that it’s being led by a girl,” she said.

The next rocket launch with the All Girls STEM Society will be held Friday from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the North Suffolk Library, 2000 Bennetts Creek Park Road. Visit suffolkpubliclibrary.com for more information.