Washington students have won some top honors at national space-race competitions this year.
All the worry over lagging education in science, math and technology might lead anyone to think students run from those fields. But consider rocket-building.
In Bellevue, the rocketry club at Odle Middle School is in such high demand that teacher Brendan Williams holds a lottery to choose students. Last weekend, one of his teams (code name: Space Potatoes) was the top-scorers among 789 student groups competing in the Team America Rocketry Challenge in Washington, D.C.
Their task? Sending two raw eggs exactly 850 feet into space and returning them safely to Earth by parachute in 44 to 46 seconds. The Space Potatoes returned home — after breezing through an even more difficult second round — with $20,000 in prize money for their school, and will compete internationally this summer.
For Odle eighth-grader Stephanie Han, the popularity of her pursuit is a no-brainer.
Essentially, she said, it’s “Let’s go build a missile and shoot it off in the field. That sounds pretty awesome.”
Rocket building at Ingraham High School in Seattle is so advanced that the team was invited by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to enter a competition geared mainly toward college students. The challenge: design and build a rocket that can soar a mile into the sky, while carrying a wind turbine that generates electricity during its safe return to Earth.
Lola Bradford, a senior and project manager on the Ingraham team, has been fascinated with building things since the second grade, when she wondered about the workings of an overhead projector.
“I built my own tiny one out of cereal-box cardboard, a shiny candy wrapper, and some clear Mylar scraps,” she said. “When I got to high school it seemed natural to join either robotics or rocketry club so I could keep making things.”
These are not the science nerds of popular culture. Many rocketry students confess that they are not academic superstars in every class. (History is an oft-cited problem.) Some are also artists, swimmers, musicians and — perhaps unknowingly — poets.
“I love space because it’s the future. Down is finite; up is infinite,” Bradford said.
What follows are edited comments from local students who may be our next astrophysicists. All are members of rocketry teams in Seattle, Bellevue and Issaquah schools.
Q: When did you first become interested in rockets, and what spurred this interest?
Lola Bradford, Ingraham High School:
“I love space because it’s so empty and cold. I love that space doesn’t care what anyone thinks of it. There are zillions of natural processes going along, jamming to their own rhythms, and they create fantastic complexity because they have no reason to be the same as each other.”
Seongyong Hong, Ingraham High School:
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“I used to fill up my drawing book with sketches and diagrams, but rockets mostly lived in my fantasies. I was unaware of that there is a community of tens of thousands of hobby and high-power rocket builders out there, ranging from middle-schoolers to those who lived through the Space Race.
Q: What’s the coolest thing about rockets?
Eli Sitchin, Ingraham High School:
“The fire that comes out the bottom. The idea that a small plastic tube the size of an empty paper towel roll could lift a 15-pound rocket to a mile in the air is simply extraordinary.”
Pranuti Kalidindi, Maywood Middle School, Issaquah:
“The coolest thing about rockets is that they are a type of science that takes us beyond our home, Earth. Rockets connect humans to the unexplored, and they bring new knowledge of our origins, our existence and the transformations of the universe.”
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about kids who are good at science?
Emma Blumhagen, Ingraham High School:
“People tend to see science-y kids as robot-people that intake pizza and output coding with no appreciation for the world’s beauty, which is what inspires us to learn as much as we can about the weird and wonderful phenomena of the universe.”
Q: Have you invented something the rest of the world should know about?
Larry Jing, Odle Middle School:
“I have been working on a model axial jet engine. Yes, it’s real.”
Seongyong Hong, Ingraham High School:
“I have been designing and building prosthetic arms as a part of the national MESA (Math, Engineering, Science, and Achievement) challenge. The challenge is meant to seek innovative solutions for a low-cost, yet functional prosthetic arm for the millions of impoverished amputees around the world.”
Q: Toughest subject for you in school?
Pranuti Kalidindi, Maywood Middle School, Issaquah.
“Science, because I try to always learn more and I like to face multiple challenges. Science is my most difficult and most favorite subject.
Dyuthi Nair, Skyline High School, Issaquah:
“Writing, because it is very subjective. There is no single right answer so you don’t know if yours is one.”