Rocket project aims to launch students' interest in science

Jun. 4—Hundreds of middle school students gathered near Glacier High School to watch an array of colorful water-bottle rockets fly into the air.

The first team to go — naming themselves the Fancy Flying Flamingos — set their bottle on the pressurized launch pad. On a count of three, two, one, the students pulled a string, releasing the bottle into the air.

Team after team, dozens of bottles were launched into the sky. Some nose-dived into the ground, others released their parachutes and fell gracefully, and some came hurtling toward the crowd of onlookers. Regardless of the success, the students were engaged and having fun — all while doing a science project.

Alison Godfrey in 2016 hosted the first rocket rally for eighth grade students to showcase their science and engineering skills. Two schools competed with a total of 28 students working on teams, each presenting their own soda-liter bottle rocket.

This year, just over 740 eighth graders from 12 school districts participated in the program, with around 260 students competing in the rally.

According to David Hembroff, a math and science teacher at Kila School District, the program is a hit for students across the board.

"We use this program as a culmination of the science they learned throughout their eighth-grade year," Hembroff said. "It's just great."

Godfrey is a retired rocket scientist from Boston, who worked on radars and missile-based systems to assist the United States Armed Forces in practice launches, mimicking enemy targets. She and her husband, Steve Alejandro — a laser physicist who worked as a research scientist at the Air Force Research Laboratory, developing technology for military sensor systems. Both retired in 2011.

Since then, the Flathead Valley has been home, but they have owned land since 1999.

On 40 quiet acres, full of mountain springs, meadows, and a view of the Swan Mountains, Godfrey and Alejandro built their nonprofit — STEM for Flathead Valley Schools — teaching and inspiring students throughout the valley about science.

Godfrey first got involved with the schools in May 2015 while speaking at Expanding Your Horizons, an annual event for eighth-grade girls to participate in science, math, technology, engineering, and medicine workshops.

Through gardening initiatives at Kila School and West Valley, she began making connections with science teachers across the area, ultimately leading to the first Flathead Valley Rocket Rally, which just celebrated its eighth competition.

"The water bottle rockets are only one piece of the process we have created," Godfrey said. "I wanted to show the students that there are multiple types of engineers and careers in science."

FROM A singular rocket rally, Godfrey and Alejandro have since expanded their efforts to all sorts of programs designed to encourage student passion for science. From demonstrations and class lectures for K-12 students — given by Godfrey and Alejandro themselves — to STEM guest speakers to their STEM resource library, the pair works to give students the tools they need to become innovators.

According to Alejandro, when they noticed that science curriculums in the valley were under-resourced, it made sense for the two retired scientists to do something. After speaking with multiple school boards, administrations, and teachers, the common theme was that STEM is just too expensive.

"The thing with that is, in the normal curriculum, they just read the information," Alejandro said. "Here, they actually get to build and see all these relationships."

The resource library, part of the couple's initiative, provides schools with critical resources to perform experiments, complete lab work, and bring studies to life. Classes can rent out a kit — ranging from explaining series circuits to studying asteroids. According to Godfrey, the kits can do things inaccurately as well, teaching kids to problem solve and work through problems to see success.

Through donations, the pair can continue to grow their nonprofit. This year, Two Bear Capital, a venture capital firm based in Whitefish, was a main donor to the organization.

"We need a lot more biologists and scientists and engineers and it's important for kids to catch that interest early on," Liz Marchi, the head of community engagement at Two Bear Capital, said. "One of the magics of this group being able to do that is that they are all industry executives with hands-on experience. Teachers may not have that background."

Godfrey and Alejandro want to encourage other scientists in the Flathead to get involved as well as they continue to grow their programs.

But the focus, and the highlight, Godfrey said, has always been the rocket rally — which continues to grow and impact students across the valley. Schools are even creating elective credits dedicated to developing the rockets.

"We just want to actually show that what they're learning in the eighth grade applies to the real world," Godfrey said.

Students are judged on five criteria during the launches for chances to win a medal: highest altitude, best rocket design, best parachute design and deployment, best logo, and egg survival — where the rocket holds an egg during launch.

This year, hundreds of students with rockets made from poster board, duck tape, foam board, and other materials joined together at Glacier High School to compete and watch the rockets launch, a day Godfrey looks forward to every year.

The students chose team names — this year included the Blue Comets, 4 Big Guys, and Disco Dynamite, among others. In the process, Godfrey has made a name for herself too.

"Hi rocket lady!" a student yelled with excitement as she passed their group. Godfrey smiled — an honest-to-god rocket scientist inspiring a younger generation of scientists, who possibly could be rocket scientists themselves one day.

Simply put, it all starts with a plastic bottle and a passion for science.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at or 758-4459.