My life had changed forever at the push of that small, orange button. Over the previous few days, my excitement had continued to build as I finished turning a motley bunch of plastic and cardboard parts into what had become my very first small-scale surface-to-air missile.
At the time, I didn't have a large enough battery needed to ignite the engine, so my dad drove the family's riding lawn mower onto a small hill in the backyard and rigged the 12-volt battery to the launch system. I inserted the launch key, did a quick countdown and nervously pressed the firing button.
In an instant, that small rocket roared to life and nearly disappeared from view as it flew several hundred feet into the air before deploying the parachute and allowing it to safely return to Earth.
At that point, I was hooked.
For the next 38 years, I've invested a considerable amount of time (and plenty of money) to build more of these amateur rockets while sharing this passion with a number of children and adults. From my perspective, rocketry is the best hands-on science lesson for children and teens because it teaches them basic mathematics and physics in addition to the most important lesson of all -- patience.
It's these same lessons that took center stage last week as hundreds of fifth and sixth graders at Hacker Middle School showcased the results of a myriad of research projects during this year's science fair. It wasn't the sheer number of projects on display that caught me off guard but the types of research these students conducted.
The level of detail produced in these reports was nothing short of astonishing. Having looked at many of these projects over in the past few years, it's obvious that these youngsters have to do a lot more research and generate more tangible results if they hope to earn top grades.
One thing that really stood out was these students tended to avoid simply copying and pasting what they read online before printing it out and gluing it to poster board. Many of them took it a step further -- often many steps further -- by building and then showcasing working products that supported their findings.
I could see the pride in their eyes when someone would see what they built and look in amazement when their experiment worked better than most would've expected.
Among them was a "vortex cannon" built by sixth grader Daniel Dunda, who blasted compressed air out of a small garbage can with enough force that it was capable of knocking down Styrofoam cups a few feet away. As I chatted with him, a few students felt tempted to "shoot" me with the cannon, and it was easy to feel just how much air that cannon was capable of delivering.
Then there was Sarah Tucker, whose presentation really hit home for those who've dealt with house fires. Her presentation on which clothing offered the best protection if they were to ever catch fire yielded the sixth grader a number of well-deserved honors.
Pointing to the various materials that were ignited during her tests, Tucker learned that denim and wool were the safest bet while you stood a significant chance of getting injured if you were wearing clothing made from a blend of polyester and cotton.
Meanwhile, Rowdy Wyatt did a study that to this day still has astronomers and scientists baffled. The theory deals with the movement of the stars and galaxies around us.
The fifth grader not only had to comprehend whether these celestial bodies are moving at a constant rate from one another but whether it's theoretically possible for mankind to reach these points in space. After all, it took nine years for a space probe launched from Earth to reach Pluto back in 2015, so Wyatt seemed to think that reaching the nearest stars is (at least for now) the talk of science fiction movies and television shows.
What today's students are capable of doing at these science fairs continues to astonish me. Last year, for example, one young man built a fully functional computer completely from scratch.
When I was his age, I'm pretty sure I was still playing with Legos and Tinker Toys. To see someone so young build something so complex was truly inspiring.
I suspect that students like these will do bigger and even greater things by the time they reach high school. It's possible that what they will create when they go off to college is something that doesn't even exist today.
Looking back, I must admit that students today have one distinct advantage when it comes to conducting science fairs. When I was their age, I was pouring through books at the school library looking for ideas, which was an intimidating endeavor.
In comparison, students today have the entire world at their fingertips through the Internet. Perhaps this is why their teachers have greater expectations on what to expect.
It's not enough for a student to research a topic, write a paper and turn it in for a grade. Today, they often have to create a formal presentation, complete with full-color images, charts and graphs.
That doesn't include the experiments they have to build and conduct.
At the same time, advances in technology and our understanding of the universe continue to grow at a vastly alarming rate. Case in point: Computer technology changes so fast that everything a computer science student learns in their freshman year is already obsolete by the time they graduate.
And what we're discovering today continues to baffle and astonish scientists. For example, less than two weeks ago, a report came out that scientists used hydrogen gas -- the most abundant element in the universe -- and turned it into something I never dreamed was possible.
Similar to a process used to create diamonds from carbon, the hydrogen was supercooled and compressed under immense pressure between two diamonds to create a metallic form.
The biggest question facing these scientists is whether this hydrogen will maintain its metallic state once that pressure is released or if it'll turn back into a liquid and then a gas. If those tests yield the results these scientists hope, the applications could represent the next major step in technology and space travel.
I can only imagine what today's students will unlock 10 or 20 years from now. It should make their science fair projects a whole lot more amazing.
-- Brian S. Orban