EDITOR DANIEL CLIFTON
Marble Falls High School senior Ivan Sanchez has a problem, but it’s not an everyday high school problem. Sanchez and his aerospace science classmates must build a rocket that can hit transonic speed but not break a 13,000-foot ceiling.
And they only have a budget of $1,000.
“They definitely don’t have NASA’s budget,” said aerospace science teacher Leslie Alexander.
However, they did receive NASA assistance at Johnson Space Center in Houston, where engineers went over the students’ rocket design and helped them prepare for a spring launch.
Sanchez pointed out that building a rocket to hit transonic speed — through the speed of sound — is relatively easy. Doing it under the imposed 13,000-foot ceiling and within budget are the challenges. About the time they think they have the design figured out and wired in, an issue pops up.
They have until May 2 to get everything in order. On that day, they’re scheduled to launch the rocket on a ranch outside of Stonewall as part of SystemsGo, a program that promotes engineering in high schools. SystemsGo uses a multi-year curriculum to give students a solid base in engineering and aerospace science.
The Marble Falls High School aerospace science and engineering programs are part of the school’s Career and Technical Education. While vocational classes of the 1970s and ’80s helped prime students for trade jobs out of high school, today’s rigorous CTE classes prepare them for the stratosphere.
Alexander challenges her students in ways difficult to imagine. In a fundamental engineering class, students must design and build a small canoe or boat, about 1-2 feet in length, and see if it floats.
Simple, you might think.
“It’s made out of concrete,” Alexander pointed out.
Not so simple.
The students pour a lot of math and physics into the concrete crafts to try to design one that will float.
That’s just part of the high school’s engineering and aerospace science programs. The benefits extend beyond learning the basics of engineering. Sanchez pointed out that one of the biggest skills he’s developed is problem solving.
Designing a rocket on a $1,000 budget to hit transonic speed while staying below 13,000 feet presents a galaxy of problems and challenges.
Something as simple as the fin design could dramatically impact the craft’s flight.
If one small detail is off, it could mean missing the goal.
Even before the team took on the project, the odds seemed insurmountable, but the students carried on.
“We just get into the mindset that we need to get this done,” Sanchez said.
During every hurdle in the design process, students looked for solutions.
“Problem solving is a big part of this and engineering,” Sanchez said. “That’s something I can use whatever I’m doing.”
The entire third-year aerospace class is tasked with designing and building the transonic rocket. Students are broken up into smaller teams with each working on a component of the rocket. Sanchez, Sebastian Evridge Pope, Tyler Wooten, Damian Cunningham, and Joshua Greenberg are the teams’ leaders. The students learn how to work as a project team, a common practice in many workplaces.
Missions only get bigger from there.
The fourth-year aerospace students are tackling a more ambitious project: designing a much larger rocket to launch 100,000 feet above the surface. It’s such a lofty goal that they have to take the rocket to the U.S. Army’s White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico — if they get everything completed and approved — for the launch in June. Funding for this rocket rests on the participating students’ shoulders. It costs about $10,000 to get the rocket prepared for takeoff, and students are looking for sponsors as well as fundraising in other ways.
People or businesses interested in supporting the effort can email Alexander at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Aerospace science is only one track of the school’s engineering program; there is also a robotics course. Within both paths, students learn a variety of skills, including auto CAD and using a 3D printer. They also learn the ins and outs of Excel and other computer programs.
Sanchez is taking both aerospace and robotics classes. It’s helped him understand the many opportunities that exist for people with engineering skills and degrees.
“I didn’t know there were so many engineering studies,” he said. “I’m looking at bio-engineering or aerospace. I never expected to be doing anything like this in high school, making a rocket or learning how to use machines like the robotic arm. It’s amazing.”
Alexander said it’s just part of the Career and Technical Education experience.