A Summer Camp Where Fireworks Are the Point

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Pacific Historian
Jun 4, 2005
Orange County, CA
ROLLA, Mo. — Camp Winnigootchee was never like this.

Peter Newcomb for The New York Times

Paul Worsey, left, of the University of Missouri-Rolla, watched Heather Steele pour water down a drill hole to help break up the rock.
A group of high school students stood at the edge of a limestone quarry last month as three air horn blasts warned that something big was about to go boom. Across the quarry, with a roar and a cloud of dust and smoke, a 50-foot-high wall of rock sloughed away with a shudder and a long crashing fall, and 20,000 tons of rock was suddenly on the ground.

The campers laughed.

"That's cool!" said Ian Dalton, a student from Camdenton, Mo.

Austin Shoemaker, a student from Macon, Mo., concurred. "It was baad!" he said. "Do it again!"

There aren't many wholesome explosions in the news these day, but those are what Summer Explosives Camp provides. It is just a louder, and arguably more exciting, version of the kind of summer experiences designed to recruit students to the quieter academic disciplines. The University of Iowa, for example, has a summer program in microbiology; Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., offers a one-week program in robotics; Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa, offers Neuroscience Camp, which includes a trip to a cadaver laboratory to see a brain and spinal cord.

But do those programs, whatever their merits, let the participants blow things up? No, they do not. This program, which does, is set up to draw students to a program at the University of Missouri-Rolla engineering school that feeds industries like mining and demolition.

Imelda Reyes of Kansas City, Mo., a 16-year-old, said she considered attending a more conventional summer program, but, she said, "Watching stuff blow up is better than summer school."

Students with a passion for all things explosive and proof of United States citizenship pay a $450 fee that covers food, lodging and incidentals like dynamite. In the course of a week, the 22 students at this session set off a wall of fire, blasted water out of a pond, blew up a tree stump and obliterated a watermelon. They set off explosive charges in the school's mine and finished off the week by creating their own fireworks show for their parents.

"We try to give them an absolute smorgasbord of explosives," said Paul Worsey, a professor in the department of mining engineering at the University of Missouri-Rolla, the only university in the country that offers an academic minor in explosives engineering. More than six billion pounds of explosives are used each year in this country by civilian commercial industry for things like mining and demolition.

While fun is the goal of the camp, safety is the first priority, Barbara Robertson, its administrator, said. "So far, we haven't had anybody lose any fingers or toes," she said, "so we're doing fine."

Much of the classroom and field time is devoted to explaining how explosives are used in real life. Before the quarry blast, Dr. Worsey, a stocky Briton with a puckish air, explained to the students that they would be disappointed if they expected to see a Hollywood explosion, with boulders flying and flames leaping.

"We don't look to throw rock through the air," Dr. Worsey said. "When you do that, you're wasting energy." Instead, they calculate a "shoot" to use just enough explosive to do the job. "It's all controlled," he said.

Dr. Worsey said he created the camp, now in its fourth year, to try to boost the ranks of the aging population of mining and explosives engineers.

Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, said the number of graduates of engineering schools with training in explosives cannot keep up with the demand in the mining industry, the leading employer of explosives engineers, and the current population of engineers in the field is aging toward retirement.

"We're going to see a whole class of retirees moving out soon that we're trying hard to replace," Ms. Raulston said.

"You need to get people in, get them properly trained before you lose a lot of the experience that's been in the mines for years," she added.

To say that these students are enthusiasts understates the case significantly. Kris Rolek was one of the students who really, really enjoyed making things go boom and splat. In the setup time before the quarry shoot, he excitedly discussed the comparative technologies for building potato guns with Dan Montrose, a 6-foot-8-inch military explosives specialist who volunteers as a teacher for the camp. Potato guns, which are pipe-based cannons that can fire a spud, are a favorite do-it-yourself project for the explosively inclined.

Kris, 16, who said he was on his fourth potato gun, suggested that lantern strikers, which are available in camping stores, served nicely as an igniter of the hairspray or other propellant used in the gun, though he believed that stun guns could provide more energy. He and Mr. Montrose agreed that the heavy-duty black plastic tubing sold in hardware stores was far preferable to white PVC plastic, which might shatter. Mr. Montrose advised him that a potato gun was in "a legal gray area," and gave a no-nonsense warning, "Do not under any circumstances make your self a potato gun out of steel or aluminum," because the metals might shatter into shrapnel.

Kris, of O'Fallon, Ill., said he came by his interest in explosives from his earliest moments — he was born on July 4. "That's why I'm looking into this as a career," he said.

Dr. Worsey said that he saw his role in part as helping these students avoid the troubles that a fascination with explosives can bring. Many people who have been drawn to the camp, he said, have already made things like potato guns and flamethrowers. They could be one fumble away from injury or serious trouble with the law. And the camp, Dr. Worsey said, can give a nudge in the right direction.

His fatherly message, he said, is "maybe hold off on some of this stuff until they get the opportunity to come to college and do it properly."

To drive home the safety issues, the week starts with a demonstration of the kind of damage even small amounts of explosives can do. Dr. Worsey ties a blasting cap, which is about the size of a quarter and is used to set off high explosives, to a chicken wing, and sets it off. The resulting mess underscores the message of caution; a hand, after all, is meat and bone as well.

The course gives insight into the lifestyles of explosives mavens. Keith Henderson, a representative of Dyno Nobel, a major manufacturer of explosives and the company that performed the blast at the quarry, told the students, "There's a lot of opportunity out there for people in the mining industry — you'll never go hungry."

But, he added, explosives have became a sensitive topic since the attacks of Sept. 11. He recalled being pulled out of the airport line, he said, by security officers who asked, "Sir, do you realize that we checked your baggage and it tested positive for three types of explosive?"

He recalled replying, "That doesn't surprise me," and showed them a card that identified him as a licensed explosives worker. After his lecture, he handed the students Dyno Nobel T-Shirts that said on the back, "I ♥ Explosives," but suggested that they not wear them to the airport.


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