Rocket 21 links kids with their inspiration

Casey Anderson of National Geographic Channel’s ‘Wild in America,”  pictured with his bear, Brutus, is one of many experts students can connect with through the website Rocket21. (Rick Smith/Grizzly Creek Films)

Casey Anderson of National Geographic Channel’s ‘Wild in America,” pictured with his bear, Brutus, is one of many experts students can connect with through the website Rocket21. (Rick Smith/Grizzly Creek Films)

Worried your kids are too involved in the big time suck of social networking? Worry no longer. Generation Z has a new destination on the web. Rocket21 is a social network strictly for the 13- to 18-year-old crowd. It is, however, designed to be more than merely social.

“The platform is fun,” says Mark Grayson, parent of a Fairfield Country Day School student and one of Rocket21’s founders, “but it has a higher purpose.”

That purpose is to help kids safely connect with hundreds of professionals from all walks of life. Hailing from the worlds of business, science, education, the arts, media, and various foundations, these professionals volunteer their time, expertise and encouragement to youngsters seeking information about educational and career possibilities that exist for them out in the real word.

Remember Career Day at school? This is career day to the tenth power.

Rocket21’s founders came together in 2009 to address what Grayson called an “urgent need” for tweens and teens to be encouraged to pursue their interests and passions, expanding their horizons beyond their daily milieu. They call it GPS for life.

“Kids generally draw inspiration from people or resources in their parents’ and schools’ networks, which are necessarily bounded by their own life experience, interests, drives,” Grayson said. “In the case of disadvantaged youth, focus groups reveal the amount of previewing is non-existent. I think it’s safe to say that for most youth the process of figuring out who you are going to be when you grow up is very hit-or-miss.”

Fairfield Country Day School student Tommy Whitely has used Rocket21 to work online with experts in fields in which he has interest, winning national contests.

Fairfield Country Day School student Tommy Whitely has used Rocket21 to work online with experts in fields in which he has interest, winning national contests.

When Grayson invited Fairfield Country Day School students to beta test the site last year, seventh grader Tommy Whitely took to it like a duck to water.

“I really loved it right away,” Tommy said. “I was able to connect with a lot of interesting people, like a man in Australia who has a dive ship and does whale and shark research. It was really interesting.”

He said it’s also easy.

“You just log in, and type in what your interests are, or a career that you might want to pursue, and then it comes up with a list of pros,” Tommy explained. “I love photography. My goal is to become a National Geographic wildlife photographer.”

Cliff Paige, one of Tommy’s teachers, encourages Tommy in his pursuits.

“Tommy is a normal kid with some tremendous passions that he loves to share with others. We have a daily electronic newspaper, and each and every day Tommy writes an article about an animal. I love Rocket21,” Paige said. “It’s a place where youngsters can begin to chase their dreams.”

Fairfield Country Day has added Rocket21 to the sixth grade advisory.

“I love the chance it gives our boys to communicate with experts in their field, whether it be veterinary medicine, marine bio or organic food. It also ties in with one of our core values, which is digital citizenship,” Headmaster John Munro Jr. said. “We want our boys to be ethical and judicious in the way that they are using technology and online resources. If we can give them the opportunity to share content responsibly, that is good.”

Rocket21 established a “Dream Here Dream Big” contest series to inspire kids to give their ideas shape through the written word, art, video, and photos. One Oregon teen went to Nashville to record her contest-winning song.

Bridgeport student Joshua Arizmendi won the “Dream Big for the President” contest and was invited to attend President Obama’s inauguration.

When in 2011 Rocket21 and Ted Turner’s Captain Planet Foundation announced their “Dream Green” competition, requesting ideas on ways to help the environment, Tommy submitted 15 proposals.

“I was really excited by this,” he said. “It was right up my alley. I love anything that has to do with wildlife and nature, especially animals.”

Tommy won the grand prize for a proposal to create artificial ice floes to help save polar bears, endangered due to disappearing sea ice. He attended the 2011 Captain Planet Foundation Gala in Atlanta, meeting with Turner and oceanographer Sylvia Earle, among others.

How does he come up with his ideas?

“I would just start typing something and something else would pop into my head,” Tommy said. “I read National Geographic articles online, and watch a lot of documentaries.”

Tommy was invited as a journalist for Rocket21 on a press trip to Yellowstone National Park for National Geographic’s “Untamed Americas,” where he met Casey Anderson of National Geographic TV’s “America the Wild.” They immediately formed a mutual admiration society.

“When I first met Tommy, his passion spilled from his heart,” Anderson said. “We were in the middle of Yellowstone National Park surrounded by one of the wildest places on earth. Tommy’s eyes were filled with wonder, joy, and unlike many kids his age, a strong determination. He loved what he was experiencing, and he was ready to fight for it.

“It inspired me, a kid his age ready to be a warrior for all things wild. He had given himself the responsibility to represent his generation as an ambassador to what he was immersed in. I wanted to do what I could to help enable him and encourage him to fully follow that passion,” he said.

Tommy Whitely, a student at Fairfield Country Day School, won recognition from Rocket21 for his plan to deal with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Tommy Whitely, a student at Fairfield Country Day School, won recognition from Rocket21 for his plan to deal with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. (Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

“Through Rocket 21, I’m able to support Tommy’s dreams and others who share the same love for nature. Collectively these young wild warriors are a force to be reckoned with and will certainly make a massive difference in making the earth a better place for us all,” Anderson said.

Tommy’s next assignment was to interview the CEOs of startup tech companies in Silicon Valley. Daunting for a 13-year-old? Yes. Doable? No problem.

And when the 2012 “Dream Green” competition came around, he won again, this time for a proposal to help clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which Tommy noted “is a major threat to marine life.”

His plan would equip oceangoing barges with filters that act like a whale’s baleen to sift out all the pieces of plastic and bring them back to shore to reconstitute them. At the Captain Planet Gala in December, he met Sir Richard Branson and had a brief interview with former President Jimmy Carter.

Tommy’s parents find Rocket21 empowering, and safe. Parents can log on and see their children’s activities.

“Tommy has been able to advance his passion for animals and the natural world to a level we had not thought possible for a person his age,” his father, Andrew Whitely, said. “He is now on a first-name basis with many of the world’s foremost conservationists and scientists as a result of his successes with Rocket21’s numerous national contests. Rocket21 has been nothing short of life-changing for Tommy.”

“Hook kids up with a passion,” Grayson said, “and it will have a wonderful impact on their lives.”

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