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Rockets ‘R’ Us

Middle schoolers soar to new heights through MSU Denver’s summer STEM program.

By Zachary Peele

July 20, 2017

This week, middle schoolers built and launched rockets on campus, but more importantly they laid a foundation of experiences that may one day lead them to careers in STEM fields.

MSU Denver’s Summer Science Institute, which is funded by private donors such as Xcel Energy Foundation and Virginia Hill, is aimed at sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who primarily come from low-income and diverse backgrounds. This year marks the 19th year MSU Denver has run the summer program, which encourages students to pursue education in fields centered on STEM —science, technology, engineering and math.

SSI gives young students the opportunity to explore math and science in an engaging, hands-on, team-oriented atmosphere. “Our mission is to promote STEM excellence,” said Hsiu-Ping Liu, Ph.D., program director of SSI and director of the Center for Advanced STEM Education at MSU Denver. “We want to keep these young students busy doing fun and engaging activities over the summer that will spark their interest in STEM later on.”

With diversity and access being core values of MSU Denver, the program strives to fulfill its mission by providing opportunities for STEM education for underrepresented students. African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans make up 29 percent of the U.S. population but represent only 9 percent of science and engineering fields. More than 36 percent of MSU Denver’s students are studying STEM disciplines; of those, more than 1,900 are students of color.

With 207 students participating in the program this year, educators and volunteers are busy. The program strives to introduce STEM as a potential career path subtly, and in a more immersive way, rather than a direct approach. “We look to start them early, get them interested in science, and say, ‘This is what college looks like.’ Hopefully, they’ll remain interested and remember that STEM is a viable career path when they get here,” Liu said.

Middle school students built and launched rockets at MSU Denver
Middle school students built and launched rockets at MSU Denver's Summer Science Institute.

The students with SSI have a lot of activities to take part in, including game programming, simulated DNA-evidence collection and the gathering of water samples from Cherry Creek. At Wednesday’s event, around 15 students built fully functional rockets and gliders and launched them.

The rockets were constructed with bottles, duct tape and glue and were propelled by water and air pressure.
“Sometimes people think it’s just about the fun, but it’s really about physics, and it gets you thinking about future careers,” said Cody Mollick, a seventh-grader at Englewood Middle School.

Liu says many students have had the opportunity to benefit from SSI. Students have gone on to MSU Denver’s Summer Science Scholars program, which is similar to SSI but aimed at high schoolers, and have also gone on to pursue STEM in college.

“I had one student who stood outside my door one day. She was really shy and said, ‘I just want to thank you; because of your program, now I’m here in college as a science major,’” Liu said, recounting an encounter with an SSI student from another year. “That was a really memorable moment.”

SSI is two weeks long and runs four hours each day, with 10 sessions. The cost of the program is $400, but limited need-based scholarships exist to help cover costs. For those interested in learning more about SSI, call 303-556-4740 or email

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