KISD rocketeers launch to learn

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Rocketry may be the only class in which failure is welcomed – to a point.

“Every failed launch shows us something we did wrong and that we can fix,” Kilgore High School rocketry student Sam Dibbell said.

The key is for the rockets to fail during the testing process, not during official flights, Hypersonic team member Graham Tyra said.

“We want destroyed rockets now, not later,” he said. “Each time we launch we rule out more possibilities of failure.”

The class uses a rocket simulation program that allows the students to test their design in different wind speeds and directions before starting the building process. Some aspects of a launch are simply not part of the simulation, though, Dibbell said.

“The spring popping out and catching the parachute, that’s not going to happen in the rocket simulation, but it is going to happen in real life, so we want to launch as many times as possible,” she said.

Jerry Martin, who teaches the science aspect of the class, said it took some time for the students to realize they have to stop and analyze the situation before jumping head-first into the assignment.

“It’s not that it will fly, it’s that it’ll fly again and again and again,” he said. “We fix one problem and another one shows up. That’s part of the fun too.”

With a basic design already established, Dibbell said, much of the process is now trial and error to determine what will put the team in the best position to be successful.

The teams have until April 3 to launch their rockets with a Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) judge collecting data and scores to submit for the competition. Each team’s rocket will have to carry a raw egg up to 775 feet, remain in the air for between 41 and 43 seconds and safely return to the ground. The teams will get three launches with two counting toward the contest, and the top 100 teams – out of about 850 in the nation – will travel to Washington, D.C., in May for the national fly-off and a chance to win a $100,000 grand prize.

“It’s going to be a tough competition,” Martin said, but he has confidence in his students in their first year in the class and the competition.

When Martin and Michael Boatman, who teaches the math aspects of the rocketry class, first applied for the KISD Education Foundation grant allowing for the class to be created, their initial plan was to begin competing later in the course’s life at the school.

As the class began, though, Martin said, he figured why not enter the contest at $125 per team, noting the competition brings an added sense of urgency to the projects, which is one of the problems the students must address.

“If you’ve got to solve a problem, you’ve got a deadline,” he said.

With a little less than two weeks to complete their three launches, Dibbell and Tyra team is working to perfect their first rocket and then create a second back-up rocket in case something happens to their primary rocket before completing the two qualifying launches.

Although they first began building ready-made rocket kits, the students now design every aspect of their rockets.

When the teams built the first Tier 1 rockets, she said, “We were getting the feel for engineering and rocket science. We were just dipping our feet in the water at first, and now our whole bodies are in the water. We’ve taken a dive into that pool of engineering. It’s really exciting, and I really think that it’s going to give us an edge because before this class, I knew nothing about engineering, and I want to be an engineer.”

The process of building the rockets has gotten easier, though.

“It’s all just practice, knowing where everything goes,” she said. “It’s really fun. It’s exciting.”

One of the aspects both the students and the campus and district administrators like about the class is the work students put into their projects.

“It’s our responsibility to build these rockets because the teachers aren’t on our team. It’s us; we have to step up to the plate, take responsibility and it’s really satisfying,” Dibbell said.

She added there is also friendly competition among the teams as they all learn new concepts and test their designs at the Kilgore Airport.

After teaching the formulas, launch sequences and math and science basics needed for the class during the first semester, the second semester has been focused on putting that knowledge to use. Tyra said Kilgore ISD Superintendent Cara Cooke told Martin she was most impressed at the role the students have in their learning with Martin serving more as a facilitator during the second semester.

Although they are just high school students, Dibbell said, “We’re taking charge and we’re taking responsibility and we’re building these really complicated mechanisms and we’re explaining how they work and we’re explaining how they’re built and we’re shooting them correctly.”

Tyra said it is satisfying to watch a successful rocket launch after he and his team spent so much time designing and tweaking the project.

KHS junior Hunter Davis agreed, saying, “Probably my favorite part about this is watching a rocket that we designed and built from scratch work. That’s probably the coolest thing.”

The class also shows the students almost instantaneously how they can use the math, science and engineering information they are learning.

Before using digital altimeters, Martin said, the students had to calculate the altitude of each rocket by hand.

“They would get 100 feet back and measure the angle and do the trigonometry necessary to determine how high it went,” he said. The class may be more intense than some students were expecting because of how much math and science is needed to design the rockets. “[Math is] in their lives and they do it without thinking.”

Tyra and Dibbell both plan to major in aerospace engineering with minors in computer science and astrophysics, respectively, but until this year KHS did not offer a class for them to explore their interests.

“We have metal shop and we have animation and stuff like that, but we don’t have a lot of what I like to call super STEM classes, which are really intensely focused STEM classes,” which include science, technology, engineering and math classes, Dibbell said. “I love engineering and I love math and I love science, and I want something difficult and challenging… When we offered this class, I was the first to jump on it.”

Now that the class is offered, she hopes it will become a permanent class for students who are interested in engineering and more advanced math and science careers.

“It’s hard to want to grow up and do STEM when you don’t have a lot of really advanced STEM classes, and now that we’re getting into those, I feel like it really encourages kids to take these classes and to pursue STEM careers,” Dibbell said.

“I think that this class is a really good first step to the school implementing more classes like this,” Tyra added.

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