BLAST Camp nurtures high schoolers’ interest in STEM

Radford University Professor of Physics Rhett Herman (left) helps Julia Jackson, a rising high school sophomore, prepare her newly constructed rocket for launch.

As a group of voices counted down in unison – 5,4,3,2,1 – and a tiny white rocket zipped toward the clouds, Julia Jackson spoke about her grandmother.

More specifically, about how her grandmother, who has fought medical battles, has inspired Jackson to pursue a career as a surgeon to help others in their times of need.

“Plus,” the rising high school sophomore said as another rocket hissed overhead, “there aren’t a lot of Black female surgeons out there, and I want to change that and be able to help people get better.”

To pursue those dreams, Jackson, who has a few physicians in her family, knows STEM education is vital to her success. Pursuing multiple education opportunities led her to BLAST Camp at Radford University for a week, beginning July 23.

“I came to BLAST because I wanted a hands-on experience in a STEM program before I went to college,” Jackson explained.

BLAST, an acronym for Building Leaders for Advancing Science and Technology, is a partnership between the Virginia Space Grant Consortium, the Commonwealth of Virginia and five partner universities, including Radford University. The program is funded by the Virginia General Assembly with the purpose of increasing the number of high school graduates who pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers by increasing students’ access to STEM enrichment experiences.

BLAST at Radford University provided 80 rising high school freshmen and sophomores with an opportunity over a four-day residential camp to experience a wide range of hands-on STEM learning experiences led by faculty in the Artis College of Science and Technology. It also gave the participants an early view of college campus life.

Those STEM activities included building and launching rockets in front of McConnell Library, flying and earning drone certifications and learning the math behind computer information systems and cybersecurity capture-the-flag-competitions.

“That was the coolest thing I’ve learned about,” said Joshua Hollie, a rising high school sophomore from Loudon County, Virginia, who is interested in pursuing a career in engineering, “either mechanical or electrical,” he noted.

Rylee Hampson applied to the BLAST program at Radford because of her interest in STEM and technology, specifically coding.


“I thought this program would give me a good experience and help me figure out what I want to do for a career,” said the rising high school freshman from Gainesville, Virginia, who excitedly explained the capabilities of robots. “You can program a robot to save someone’s life. You can program a robot to plant a tree,” Hampson said, going through a few of the possibilities. “You can program a robot to do anything.”

Programming simple robots was part of the curriculum at the inaugural BLAST camp.

Joseph Kohrs, a rising sophomore from Mount Jackson, Virginia, had a blast at the camp – pun intended – and loved the Radford University experience, meeting new people and working with university faculty.

“It’s a nice college,” he said about Radford, awaiting his turn to launch his newly constructed rocket. “I think I will apply here.”

Radford University Assistant Professor of Physics Sandra Liss said BLAST is perfect for giving students the freedom to approach complex topics in creative ways.

“Eighty Virginia high schoolers have now seen themselves as scientists at Radford University,” Liss explained. “They've learned about college and career paths in STEM. They have persevered through challenges in physics, engineering, mathematics, biology and chemistry. They've met faculty and students who tackle these subjects daily and enjoy it!

“Maybe they've learned something new that has sparked a lifelong interest in science,” Liss continued. “And maybe in a few years, when they're ready for college, they'll choose to come to Radford and continue to explore that passion with us.”

Aug 1, 2023
Chad Osborne
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