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Rocket science is a notoriously difficult area of study, but it’s all in a day’s work for a group of middle school students at Williamsburg Montessori School.
The students are members of the school’s inaugural rocket club, and they do not simply learn about rockets — they build them, too.
The club members have designed and constructed two rockets with minimal assistance from adults, and their achievements have earned the team a place at a national youth rocket-building competition.
Despite the great heights the middle school team has reached, Laura Newton, a science teacher at WMS and the club’s sponsor, said the club’s launch was an unexpected event.
In August 2014, Newton was invited to participate in a NASA-sponsored educator convention in West Virginia. She had attended other conventions in the area before, but the West Virginia one was different.
“It was basically, ‘Come to West Virginia and we’ll show you how to build rockets,’” she said.
The opportunity was too interesting to pass up. Newton told a few of her students about the convention and invited them to come along. The group raised funds to stage the trip, attended the convention, and came back to Williamsburg with the knowledge — and drive — to begin building rockets.
Since the trip, the team has met every other Sunday to learn more about rockets and to translate their theoretical knowledge into functional rockets.
The team has built two rockets to date. Standing about 4 feet tall, the rockets are made of a hard plastic tube, with balsa wood directional fins and a hard, pointed plastic nose, and are powered by a deceptively small combustion motor that launches the rocket hundreds of feet in the air.
The rockets are too powerful to launch in Williamsburg, so the team travels to a rural launch site in Chesapeake to set the rockets skyward, with some help from the Southeastern Virginia Rocketry Association.
That experience at the launch site will be necessary as the team prepares to compete at the NASA-sponsored Team America Rocketry Challenge, a national competition featuring some of the country’s top youth rocketry clubs.
To earn an invitation to the national tournament, the WMS team had to pass a qualifying competition. They had to design and test a rocket that would fly 800 feet in the air, separate into two sections and return to the ground in a window of 46-48 seconds — all while carrying an egg.
The 100 teams with the lowest scores — similar to a golf tournament — would be invited to the national tournament, and any deviation from the stated benchmarks would add points to the team’s score.
The team traveled to the Chesapeake launch site and prepared to stage its three qualifying launches. Newton said the first flight was almost perfect.
“It went to 799 feet in 46 seconds,” she said. “That’s just one point.”
The second flight did not go as well. The rocket launched as planned, but strong winds carried it away from the field and into a neighboring forest. After a search, the team found the rocket parts stuck in a tree — disqualified launch.
The third launch was not as good as the first, but performed better than the second flight. Even with the bad second launch, the WMS team qualified for the national competition as one of the top-100 teams in the country.
The national challenge will be held May 9 in Washington, D.C., and the team is busy preparing for it. While she would love to see her students do well at the competition, Newton said the club has already been a successful, rewarding experience.
“It’s so important to engage students with informal science experiments,” Newton said. “It prepares them better for class and helps them learn.