High School Seniors Launch into Hands-On STEM at Operation Catapult

Monday, August 12, 2019
Female students wearing science lab gear working on a project

Rising high school seniors worked together with a Rose-Hulman faculty mentor to complete a variety of hands-on projects in science, engineering and computing during this summer’s Operation Catapult STEM camp experience.

Hundreds of teenagers from throughout the world are beginning their senior year in high school after having an exciting summer exploring interests in engineering, science and computing through Rose-Hulman’s Operation Catapult immersive residential STEM experience.

Over the course of two weeks, student teams worked with Rose-Hulman professors to create hands-on projects in areas of robotics, mechanics, computer programming, chemistry, electronics and civil engineering through the process of product creation, research and testing.

And, having lots of fun along the way.

For instance, one group studied food science by creating encapsulated sauce droplets that infused flavor into meals. Another examined the effects of the roasting process on coffee’s caffeine content, while students also created an edible variety of food wrap. In the chemistry lab, a team developed artificial scents and bioplastic materials from potatoes. Elsewhere, students created computer games and biofuels, studied earthquake engineering and tested turbine engines – to name just a few of the projects.

“After accepting the original premise for our project, we could go in any direction to get the final result,” said Hannah Wetzel of Albion, Michigan, one of three students involved in the coffee science project. “We made several mistakes along the way, but learned from each of those failures. It was really exciting when we finally got to everything to work out, because we had done it all together.”

Also exploring food science – a new project area this year – was Katherine Sarkel of Hilliard, Ohio. She joined teammates in being delighted to see the droplets of sauces get encapsulated within seconds after being introduced to a variety of chemicals in a water bath.

“To see something happening that we had a hand in doing, right before our very eyes, was very satisfying,” she said. “Really, everything was open-ended. We did so much on our own. We would come in every day with a new idea and say ‘let’s do it.’”

Lydia Freeze of Kettering, Ohio, also liked the sense of scientific discovery in a project that had team members removing starch from potatoes, then adding chemical materials and temperature to create a bioplastic material.

“There’s more opportunity to learn about why things are happening (in a project) when you’re not worrying about getting a grade,” she said. “We learned something new nearly every day by doing something different and out of our comfort zone.”

Another team member, Ella Dorfmueller of Robinson, Ill., added, “The best part was the freedom we had to take things from scratch, design what we wanted to do, learn from failure and come up with something that’s really neat. We had to learn to rely on people that we didn’t know before coming here.”

Chemistry-related research projects in bioplastics and artificial scents provided the visiting students with unique laboratory opportunities, according to faculty mentor Rachel Horness, visiting professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

“I gave them this idea and told them to ‘go with it,’” she said. “Through lots of trial and error, you could see them growing in self-confidence every day. It was great to see their excitement at what they were accomplishing, and as a chemistry professor, I was delighted to see their excitement about science.”

Besides the projects, students also had the opportunity to learn about different careers within engineering, science and mathematics, and experience living on a college campus. They found new friends from throughout the country and world, as 231 rising high school seniors from 31 states, the District of Columbia and as far away as China, Greece, England and India attended this summer’s sessions.

Completing its 52nd year, Operation Catapult is one of the oldest STEM-related summer educational experiences in the country.