A team from Rockwall-Heath High School in Heath, Texas, a town 25 miles outside of Dallas, won a national high school rocket-building competition Saturday. Team members split $60,000 in cash and scholarships with other top 10 finalists.
At the Team America Rocketry Challenge, students were tasked with building a 2.2 pound (or lighter) rocket that would reach an altitude of exactly 750 feet and return an egg safely back to earth. The Rockwall team launched their first rocket to a height of 736 feet—"a pretty mediocre launch," according to team captain John Easum. But it was good enough to get the team into the second round, where they launched their rocket to a near-perfect 752 feet, eking out Lambert High School in Suwanee, Ga., and Harmony Magnet Academy in Strathmore, Calif., which tied for second place.
The contest is designed to get students excited about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education, with the hope that they will enter the aeronautical engineering field, where there is a shortage of young, American-born employees. The challenge is sponsored by the National Association of Rocketry and the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which represents civil, military, and business aircraft manufacturers.
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Marion Blakey, chief executive officer of AIA, says America's future depends on students like Easum.
"Our industry has a vital role in our economy and our national security, yet we are in danger because the overall age of our workforce is much greater than you see in many work fields," she says. "About 23 percent of our workers are eligible to retire in the next five years. There is a vital self-interest here."
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The country lags behind the world in STEM achievement. Blakey says more are American citizens are needed in the field because national security clearances, which aren't always available to foreign-born engineers, are necessary for many jobs. The rocketry challenge opens many students' eyes to the possibility of becoming a rocket scientist, she says.
"At the contest, you can tell that kids understand there are a lot of companies all over the country recruiting," she says. "Not only are these interesting, high-tech jobs, but they pay very well."
Teams earned entry to the contest by competing in qualification launches throughout the country; the top 100 teams competed in the national finals in The Plains, Va., about 50 miles west of Washington, D.C. A misty and windy day complicated the launch for some teams. But Easum says his team's location in temperate Texas allowed for practices all winter long.
"We have actually never launched in rainy conditions, but we take a lot of weather data—we look at how dense the air is and things like that," he says. "Even though it was misty, it was something we could compensate for."
His four-member team met after school and on weekends and has competed in the contest for five years—the last three at the national finals. Teams are required to pay for their own rockets, although organizers suggest teams seek sponsorships from businesses. Easum's team, which also included seniors Michael Gerritsen and Colt McNally and junior Landon Fischer, was sponsored by local businesses and the Dallas Air Rocket Society.
Saturday's contest was the ninth year of the challenge. A recent survey of participants by AIA found that 68 percent said they expected to finish graduate or professional school, and 92 percent said they'd encourage their friends to pursue STEM careers.
Eason, who will attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in the fall and study engineering physics, certainly plans to.