Center High School students score big with launch of rocketry team

Published: May. 12, 2023 at 10:21 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KCTV) - A group of local high schoolers have their sights set high.

The Center High School rocketry team bested hundreds of others to compete in the American Rocketry Challenge in Washington, D.C.

On Friday, the tiny team of three did a test launch of two rockets made to precise specifications.

They have one week left to prepare for a competition involving 100 high school and middle school teams from across the nation. Only 10% of the nation’s teams made finalist list.

Freshman Savannah Frank’s eyes lit up when she talked about getting the news.

“My heart, it was just hammering in my chest, and it was for like the next 30 minutes because of how it was so unbelievable,” she remembered. “I didn’t think we were going to be able to make it, but we did it.”

It took a lot to get to this point.

They began in August using a computer program to create designs and perform simulations. In January, they started building the rockets. In March, they had their first test launch in the athletic field. Then, they had a month to make tweaks before the entry launch that made them finalists.

Some of the schools competing have teams of up to 10 kids and multiple teams at that. That means more work per student for Center’s three-person team.

“It takes a lot longer, but you get to know each other better when it’s less people,” freshman Oscar Vargas Garcia said.

His voice was subdued as he explained that he had never participated in an after-school activity before and that he keeps his friend group small. His favorite stage in the process is building.

Frank is high-energy and outgoing. Her favorite part is the launch, seeing all the hours of work yield results.

“And I’m just like, ‘We did all of that,’” she described. “‘We put the work into that. We made that happen. This is because of us.’”

“Being able to build and launch rockets is definitely something I enjoy, but also being able to get to know new people,” said senior David Graves.

He’ll be heading to the competition the day after he graduates.

“I think it’s going to be a fun time, but it’s also kind of nerve wracking,” he said. “Kind of scary because we’re going to be in Washington, D.C. I’ve never been there.”

Going to the nation’s capital is a first for all three of the students involved. It will also be their first time on an airplane.

“I did hear that there’s some sort of jet lag or something when you go to a new place,” Vargas Garcia mused.

It’s also the first time the school has had a rocketry team. Their coach, engineering and chemistry teacher Miranda Young, started teaching at Center in 2020 during the pandemic. This school year was her first chance to organize the activity.

“Rockets are exciting, right? So, whether they know it or not, they’re doing engineering,” Young explained. “My goal is to get kids exposed to as much STEM programs as possible and a variety, to make sure that they’ve had exposure to everything so they can find what they’re best at.”

The team built five rockets to different specifications and will be bringing four. Their final selection and onsite adjustments will take into account several factors that they won’t know until that day.

“There’s the wind, the wind direction, the wind speed, the humidity, the temperature, if there’s going to be a thermal in the air,” Frank listed off. “If the rocket gets caught on a thermal, it stays up in the air too long.”

All those details matter.

The rocket must stay in the air no less than 42 seconds and no more than 45 seconds. The rocket has to weigh 650 grams or less. An altimeter in the rocket measures how high it goes. It had to reach 850 feet to qualify. At nationals, a coin flip will determine whether the height is 825 feet or 875 feet. Every foot above or below will affect their score.

It needs to split in two at its highest point, at apogee, deploying a parachute on each end. One half of the rocket must contain a raw egg. If it cracks, they are disqualified. And, on the day of the competition, they have just one chance to get it right.

Young is excited that she got a diverse group of kids interested. She thinks it’s important to break stereotypes about who excels in STEM subjects.

Even if they don’t pursue a STEM career, they’ve learned plenty.

“Problem solving for sure,” Young gave as an example. “What works? What doesn’t work? How do I fix something that didn’t quite go right?”

“A lot of what it takes to be an engineer or rocket scientist,” replied Graves, when asked the same question. “You’ve got to have some hard work. You have to have some dedication. And, you’ve got to be able to work with a team.”

“It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’ll be good at it. It doesn’t matter if you think it’s going to be hard. Just try it,” Young added.

The top 10 teams will split $100,000 in scholarship money.

The winning team goes on to compete at the international level in Paris.

Center’s team flies out next Friday. They plan to make a stop at the National Air and Space Museum before they compete on Saturday and visit with Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver II before they fly back on Monday.