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Taking Off for Science

Lake Braddock students join hundreds in rural Virginia for model rocket competition.

With baby-boomers reaching retirement and school-age children showing declining interest in careers in math and science, an attempt to perk middle and high school students’ interests was tested Saturday, May 20, in The Plains, Va.

The Fourth Annual Team America Rocketry Challenge, presented by the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) and the National Association of Rocketry (NAR), showcased 100 teams from 32 states at this year’s finals. Each of the middle and high school teams brought self-designed, hand-built model rockets to the launching competition. Nearly 7,000 students tried to make it into the contest, but only about 500 students did. Three of the teams came from Lake Braddock Secondary School, and they were all determined to meet contest regulations in order to place in the competitive event.

“The whole program is to encourage kids to get into engineering,” said Barbara Wilson, an advanced placement physics teacher at Lake Braddock and also the school’s sponsor for the event. “This is a good program because they have prize money, and that kind of inspires people.”

The statistics show that math and science isn’t as popular among middle and high school students as it used to be, said Matt Grimison, spokesperson for AIA. He pointed to the trend of aging aerospace workers and a lack of workers entering the force to replenish them. This contest is just one of the ways the aerospace industry is trying to create more interest in math and science.

“There is something of a work force crisis in the aerospace industry right now,” said Grimison. “This is a tangible way for us to do our part to try and reverse that [the trend].”

SINCE A LAKE BRADDOCK team from last year finished in the top 10, some of this year’s members were determined to give Braddock a good showing once again.

“At least we didn’t get disqualified,” said Daniel Fernandez, a 12th-grade team member.

Two of Lake Braddock’s three teams were disqualified though, because of the contest’s rules and specifications. Each model rocket, which had already passed through a preliminary elimination test last fall, couldn’t exceed 1,500 grams in weight. Each device also had to reach an altitude of 800 feet and stay airborne for 45 seconds. Each rocket carried one chicken egg that also had to return to the ground unbroken. The scores were determined by the differences above and below the altitude and time duration, with each second and foot above and below the specifications adding points to each team’s score. The team with the lowest amount of points won.

One Lake Braddock team didn’t make it because their engine malfunctioned, and another team lost out because their egg didn’t survive.

“Our rocket exploded,” said Nicole Gunderson, a 10th-grade chemistry student on one of the Lake Braddock teams. “It was a classic dive into the crowd kind of thing.”

“It was like scrambled eggs,” said Alexis Arbach, one of Gunderson’s teammates.

The other disqualified team came close to the contest regulations, having their rocket soar 763 feet into the air and keeping it up for 39 seconds. The only problem for them was the egg, since it came back crushed. For the disqualified students, it wasn’t all about winning.

“I definitely learned a lot I didn’t know before about rockets,” said Haley Puffenbarger, an 11th-grade honors physics student.

“The whole concept of the contest is a lot of fun,” said Arbach. “It all comes together, then you go out and fly it and prey that it works.”

THE SPONSORS announced contest specifications last fall, and students quickly began constructing sophisticated flying technology. The designing and building of each rocket was meant to show students the basic principles of aerospace engineering, said Grimison. They each used physics and math to calculate flight trajectories, and each team also used aerospace engineering and design principles to determine the aerodynamics and tradeoffs of each rocket, according the AIA’s Web site featuring the contest’s guidelines.

“Our first launch [during last fall’s qualifying round] was the most fun I’ve had in science,” said Fernandez, who plans study some type of engineering at the University of Virginia next fall.

Fernandez and his teammates were the only ones from Lake Braddock to avoid disqualification. The team, made up of seniors in advanced placement physics at Lake Braddock, all said they have some interest in a science or math career. They all have been accepted to college, and are fairly sure about their intended majors in school.

“I’ve always had a passion for space in general,” said Sean Brodner, who will be majoring in aerospace engineering at Cornell University next fall.

“I’m interested in going into NASA,” said Rohit Pal, who wants to major in systems engineering when he attends George Mason University in the fall.

Anderson Hunnell said he’s going to Rice University, but isn’t sure of a major yet.

“I’ve always loved aviation, and my dad is a pilot,” said Hunnell.

Members from all three teams granted a lot of their success and knowledge to Don Hooker, their mentor for the contest. Hooker began helping Lake Braddock students with this competition a few years ago when his son was involved, and this year his daughter, Hillary, competed on one of the three Lake Braddock teams. He remained a mentor to the students even when his children were not a part of it, said Wilson, and the children looked to him for guidance and advice.

“He helped us decide and mentored us on where we wanted to go,” said Puffenbarger.

Sean Brodner, one of the members of the qualifying team, said he and his teammates began building and designing their rockets with Hooker sometime last October. The team’s original rocket ended up in a lake after a faulty launch, said Brodner, but the experience allowed them to build on their original design, ultimately allowing them to prevail in the final competition.

“The first rocket showed us what problems we could experience,” said Hunnell. “That’s what made the second one more stable.”