High school STEM students test rockets at military test facility
August 7, 2014
White Sands Missile Range, N.M. (Aug. 7,2014)-Senior High School students from nine different schools in Texas visited White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) last week to test rockets that have been four years in the making.
Students enrolled in the Systems Go program were able to oversee and work on the last step of a project they have taken part in since their freshman year. The students tested a total of six rockets from July 29 to July 30.
"We're developing the most valued engineers as well as supporting research and development and manufacturing the workforce," said Brett Williams, founding instructor of Systems Go Aeroscience.
"Our focus is on workforce development," Williams added.
There are currently 50 schools participating in the Systems Go program and nine were enrolled in the final phase of the program. Out of the nine, only five schools completed the program. Each school brought a group of about 20 students to test a rocket. One of the five schools brought two groups of students who qualified. Two of the schools were brand new to the program. The high schools in attendance were: Fredericksburg High School from Fredericksburg, Alamo Heights High School from San Antonio, who tested two rockets, Booker T. Washington High School from Dallas, and Union Grove High School from Gladewater.
Three years ago the program signed an educational agreement with then WSMR commanding general, Brig. Gen. John Regan. The agreement allowed for the program to partner with the installation and use its test equipment and talent to benefit the science and engineering education system. Williams started the curriculum 18 years ago. For the last six years Williams and his team have been pushing the program to replicate and grow.
"This is one of the programs that have four consecutive years of STEM courses. I'm expecting us to go from 50 schools to 300 schools," Williams said.
Williams said the program's goal is to incite critical thinking, cognitive reasoning, and problem solving. He said those three skills help create innovation, which he said is something the country is lacking. The program is taught in three different levels: Tsiolkovsky, named after Konstantin Tsiolkovosky the Russian Soviet Rocket Scientist, with the goal of developing a one pound rocket that can go one mile in altitude. Oberth, named after Herman Oberth, a German physicist and engineer, with the goal of being able to exceed the speed of sound. Goddard, named after Robert Goddard, an American professor, inventor and physicist, is the final level with an ultimate goal of carrying a 35 pound rocket up 10,000 feet. The Goddard level is what is tested at WSMR.
Once here the students work with professionals in the field they are studying and get a glimpse of what it would be like to work in the fields they have studied in. The rockets that are tested are not solid motors, for the safety of the students. They use a hybrid system and the components are inert and non-flammable. These components make the rocket a non-hazardous blend between a solid and a liquid rocket.
Cedric Baca, Chief of the Special Projects Branch at WSMR, said WSMR has worked with the program for the past 15 years. For each test mission the installation provides range control, communication, escort and access to the range, test operation, test conduct, and surveillance optics and radar tracking. Also, with every test mission roadblocks need to be set in place as a safety measure in order to protect individuals who may be traveling on a public road nearby. Six roadblocks were set in place for the two days of testing.
He said the branch also prepares a large amount of documentation for the rocket tests prior to the student's arrival. The program provides $5,000 for incidental costs to the range which leaves a rough balance of about $65,000. WSMR subsidizes the balance as part of the education partnership agreement. The agreement allows for the students to receive one day of preparation and two launch days utilizing WSMR assets.
"White Sands hopes to continue to partner with the Systems Go program for years to come because we feel that the students receive a great experience while helping promote the science and engineering field. The program also provides the government and industry with future engineers and scientists," Baca said.
Enrique Torres, a WSMR Test Officer, and Gary Chavarria, a WSMR test conductor, have been working with the program for the past couple of years. Torres and Chavarria are with the students throughout their entire visit to WSMR. Baca said Torres and Chavarria are very well suited for this assignment because they can relate with the students due to their proximity in age. He said it is important to employ a young workforce like Torres and Chavarria in order to be able to build that camaraderie and open the lines of communication for students who would like to pursue a career in their fields.
"I think it's a benefit to White Sands to have these young employees who students can relate to," Baca said. "I did talk to a few of them and I had a couple of students who were very interested in working here at WSMR. It was exciting to hear that they were planning to study engineering in college and wanted to work at White Sands as potential interns."
Though the rockets were not able to lift-off off due to technical difficulties the students faced in the final countdown procedures, Baca said he reminded the students that the project as a whole was a success. He said the project taught them the fundamentals and they were able to follow through with the entire project until the very end, much like Baca and his team do in their line of work.
"We saw this year's campaign as a great success for both the students and WSMR," Baca said.
Annisa Kneese, 18, came out to the range for the second time this year and represented Fredericksburg High School. Kneese said this year she came as a senior and had her very own rocket to test. Kneese started with the Systems Go program as a freshman having heard about the program prior to attending high school.
"I decided to take it and I fell in love with it. It's really fun," Kneese said. "It helped me grow into the person I am today."
Kneese said during her four years she learned how to be well rounded by doing things like writing budgets that were sent to NASA. Kneese said if she hadn't joined the program she would have gone into the medical field. She said the program helped open her eyes to the different jobs and opportunities that she never knew were out there.
"It was very useful in helping develop skills that will help in college and beyond," Kneese said.
Kneese and a small group of Fredericksburg graduates will be attending Texas A & M, where they will be studying Aerospace and Engineering. The group of student's first line of business is to present a plan to the university to develop a propulsion lab, something they have been studying in high school and which the university lacks.
Cade Ottmers, 18, will also be attending Texas A & M with Kneese this fall. Ottmers also joined the program as a freshman with his ultimate goal of building and testing a rocket at WSMR.
"The experience I had was absolutely amazing. It's one of the best experiences I've had in high school," Ottmers said.
Ottmers said he always knew he wanted to study engineering and narrowed it down to aerospace when he joined the program. Ottmers, the first in his family to study engineering, said he would have otherwise gone into sound engineering.
"It's definitely taught me great leadership skills, great problem solving skills, and skills to work with others. It really made me a better rounded student. It was very helpful," Ottmers said. "It felt really good to be out there. I thought it was a really cool experience and will help me with any problems I may face in the future."
Ottmers said he learned so much from the program not only because of the hands on approach that it takes but also because it allows the students to figure out what the problem is and fix it.
"I really hope that kids can keep learning and enjoying the program and coming to White Sands because it's really a neat experience," Ottmers added.
There are 360 students who have completed the program, 80 percent went on to obtain their engineering degree. From those 360, 200 have gone on to be named the best in industry and receiving silver Snoopy awards, an award provided by NASA for outstanding achievement. Williams expressed a deep passion for the program saying that Fredericksburg has always received an "average" grading from the state.
"This program does what it's designed to do," Williams said. "When you look at those really (successful) students, they've all come to WSMR. They go to a higher level. They seem to come out of this White Sands experience with a greater understanding a greater appreciation and a greater confidence level."
Currently, there are nine other schools in other states that are looking into incorporating the program into their school.
"It's always a privilege to be out here. It's always an exciting opportunity for our students to work with test directors," Williams added. "We're trying to take our innovation idea forward. If an American engineer can do it better and quicker, then that's who you get."