TAMPA — Daniel Mills slipped a paper-covered section of plastic pipe into a tube connected to a container of pressurized air.
Then he pushed a button, and whoosh!
The pipe, a makeshift rocket, flew about 50 feet across the cavernous Hangar 3 at MacDill Air Force Base.
"I have the best job in the Hillsborough County School District," said Mills, 31, of Tampa.
A teacher at Madison Middle School in South Tampa, Mills is team leader for the school's Aerospace Engineering Academy. His team of 50 stood among some 2,300 students during a visit to MacDill on Friday for STEAM Day.
Now in its second year, the event is designed to fuel an interest in science, technology, engineering, arts and math.
Students, teachers and administrators from Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Hernando and Manatee counties took part. Counting adults and volunteers and representatives from about 65 exhibitors, about 3,000 people took part.
Last year, some 1,100 students attended, making it the largest event of its kind in the Air Force. This year's attendance doubled that record number.
The Madison Middle School program, now in its 11th year, uses demonstrations like the air-pressure rocket and drone flying to help teach students in grades six through eight about aerospace in lessons that encompass all five elements of the STEAM program.
Mills, who has been at Madison for seven years, said some of his former students have gone into the military and interned at NASA.
One current student hopes to fly to Mars some day.
"I want to be an astronaut," said seventh-grader Madison Carson, 13.
Standing on the flight line, Hillsborough County Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Eakins called MacDill "an amazing place" for such an event with all the real-world technology in use at the base.
Afterward, calling MacDill one of the most import bases in the world, Eakins told reporters, "So much of the workforce out there needs students to come in with skills that have science, technology, engineering, art, mathematics, all woven in. ... for it to kind of come alive is really important for them."
Air Force Col. Steve Snelson, the base commander, told the students, "When I was a kid, the most technology we had was a microwave and Atari. I thought I would have a flying car by now."
Snelson, who commands a wing of 24 KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jets, noted that Air Force faces a severe pilot shortage.
"It'd be great if we could get a lot of future airman out of this crowd here," he said. "But I think our priority is partnering with the community and schools to introduce folks to the importance of STEAM. ... As a father of two young girls, I am trying to emphasize STEAM and what impact it can have on society."
Contact Howard Altman at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112 . Follow @haltman