Russellville rocket team has eyes on the skies
By Allison Griffin
Along a stretch of four-lane highway leading into Russellville, a colorful sign notes with pride the town’s state champion baseball and golf teams.
But unlike similar signs that welcome visitors to small towns, this one gives equal billing to students who’ve found success on something other than the field of play.
This sign also honors the Russellville City Schools Engineering Team, which won the national Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) in May — the Alabama team’s first time to qualify for that national contest. But their greatest achievement came the next month, when the team won first place at the International Rocketry Challenge at the 2015 Paris Air Show, defeating two teams from the U.K. and France.
That’s right. The group of seven middle and high school students from Franklin County, Alabama, won an international competition.
Since then, the students have been heralded by the community and elected officials and interviewed numerous times by various media outlets. They’re almost like celebrities in their small northwest Alabama town, with a spotlight some of them have called “almost overwhelming.”
“The support from the parents has been astronomical. (And) the community has helped us in every way possible,” says team mentor Tracy Burns, father of team member Katie Burns. “Everyone has had a hand in where these kids are today.”
But now, as the new school year begins, it’s back to normal for the students, with classes, sports and band practice competing for their attention. The team lost one member to graduation, but the other six who are still in school all plan to be back for this year’s competition, where they plan to take top honors again with a redesigned rocket.
Before the launch
It took a little time for the rocket kids to get this far.
A few years ago, Russellville teacher Lee Brownell felt challenged to create more opportunities for technology and engineering education. He started a robotics team with prize money he won as the Von Braun Educator of the Year, and the team resonated with students; over the next several years, the team grew to more than 40 middle and high schoolers.
Later, Brownell decided to add model rocketry to the list of programs the team was involved in; most, but not all, of the rocketry students came from the robotics team, and they continue to participate in both projects.
Brownell has since left the school to take a job with the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative (AMSTI), where he works to increase STEM participation in multiple schools. But he downplays his part in the rocket team’s success.
“My role was to get them going. I started the program, but I let them run it themselves,” he says. “They have done an awesome job with that.”
The team got a boost when mentor Tracy Burns came on board. Burns works on rockets for United Launch Alliance in Decatur, and he brought a technical expertise the team needed.
But their success is a team effort. The team had real dedication, says team sponsor and middle school teacher Mark Keeton.
“From the get go, they’ve been bound and determined to make something of the current team,” Keeton says. “In the past, I think only one time in the past four years did we go (to nationals) and do a qualifying launch. … That really motivated this group to push above and beyond this time around.”
Team member Evan Swinney agrees. Swinney graduated in 2015 and now attends the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
“It was pretty clear we were not like the past years’ teams,” he says. “When we started, we had a determination to actually get something done. That was something that didn’t happen in previous years.” They started with small goals, and then moved on to larger ones.
“Doing it that way, and having the determination and the knowledge that all seven of us could contribute to the team, I think that’s what set us apart.”
The rocket team’s big event — what they worked on for hours a day for several months, all after regular school hours — is the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), the world’s largest student model rocket contest and a way for the aerospace and defense industry to build a stronger U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). The goals for each team that participates in TARC is to design, build and fly a model rocket that travels a specified distance in a narrow timeframe.
This year’s TARC competition required each rocket to carry a payload of one raw chicken egg to an altitude of 800 feet and return to the ground, with the egg uncracked, within 46-48 seconds.
Ingenuity, innovation and hard work were rewarded with a trip to the TARC finals near Washington, D.C. At this year’s finals, the Russellville students scored better than 100 other teams to win the national title. Their grand prize: A trip to the Paris Air Show in June, where they were the only U.S. team to compete in the International Rocketry Challenge.
The team’s Paris rocket launch won with the lowest score — meaning that it most closely approached the required height and time, and that the egg didn’t crack. This came after crashing three rockets that had been built and tested just four days before the Paris Air Show.
“Given that hurdle, what they did was all the more impressive,” says Joseph Cole, team sponsor and teacher at the middle school, who went to Paris with the students. The team also had to make a presentation on the rocket’s design to an international panel of judges, which Cole said they knocked “out of the park.”
The sky’s the limit
With the new year ahead, the students will have their hands full. The team members who are on the robotics team will start on that statewide competition, which will end in December. Preparations for this year’s TARC won’t really get going until January, but team captain Andrew Heath said the team will likely start preliminary design meetings this fall.
He and others on the team will also write a proposal for the NASA Student Launch initiative, a research-based, competitive, experiential exploration activity focused on high-powered rockets.
Andrew said the team also enjoys doing outreach efforts — they’ve done demonstrations for both kids and adults, and they’ll continue to try to interest other students in engineering pursuits. And they hope to inspire other schools to get involved with their own rocketry programs — and they’re ready to help.
“Definitely ask for help,” says senior Niles Butts. “It’s not something you can do just on your own — you have to have some help and guidance.”
More than anything, the team hopes that with more recognition there will be more financial and academic support for programs like theirs. The students raised all the money for the TARC competition and to buy the equipment and computers they needed for their lab. And this is all extracurricular.
Superintendent Heath Grimes hopes to develop a robotics/rocketry academy, to get the students interested in the seventh and eighth grades.
And now, they have the community’s ear.
“Before this, we’ve been rather unknown in the community,” Andrew says. “I think (with) everybody learning about us, there’s been a lot more interest in helping us further. I think that will play a lot bigger role for us going forward.”