The Scott Johnson Middle School Rocketry Group is lifting McKinney ISD’s Career and Technical Education program to new heights.

And, while their scale-model rockets don’t exactly blast off into “the final frontier,” these creative seventh- and eighth-grade rocket builders have turned in a promising first-time performance in the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

The rocketry challenge is a national program sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry. Its purpose: to ignite interest in aerospace careers among middle and high school students.

According to its website, the Team America Rocketry Challenge is the world’s largest rocket contest with approximately 7,000 students from across the nation competing each year. Add the kids from Scott Johnson Middle School to that list. 

Guided by teacher Dellen Gibson, along with mentors from the Dallas Area Rocket Society, the Scott Johnson Middle School seventh- and eighth-grade teams accomplished on their first try what many rocketry teams across the country have not -- qualifying for the Team America Rocketry Challenge (also known as TARC).

During a series of recent launches, Scott Johnson Middle School met the requirements to make the team eligible for invitation to the TARC National Finals. Gibson said that only about one-third of the teams who make the attempt actually meet the TARC qualification standards.

The challenge? Build a rocket that can carry two raw eggs 800 feet into the air, stay aloft for 43-47 seconds and return to earth with the payload intact. Broken eggs result in automatic disqualification. Points are added to a team’s total based on how far over or under the specifications a rocket performs. The goal is to avoid points; an absolutely perfect launch would result in a score of 0.

That’s complicated enough, but from the outset, further challenges confronted the Scott Johnson Middle School group. Specifically, how to fund the project? Building and launching rockets is not cheap -- regardless of size or scale.

Jack Sprague, President of the Dallas Area Rocket Society, "told us that the average team needs about $750 to $1,000 to just get started,” said Gibson. “The winning TARC teams from last year made at least 30 attempts before trying to qualify. Just the motors, not including the body and fins, have an average launch cost of  $30 per launch.”

Undaunted, these middle schoolers got to work and got creative. Lollipops provided at least part of the answer to their revenue woes. They sold hundreds of them and raised some $350.

With additional donations, the team wound up with about $600 to get started. It was enough to get in the game but left very little room for trial and error.

“Virtual here we come!” said Gibson. But, virtual simulations can only take a team so far.

“We had almost no [practice] launches because we just didn’t have enough money,” said Gibson.

“Raytheon recently donated $500 to help us finish up with our expenses this year and possibly get us going at the beginning of next year,” she continued. “We certainly appreciate their kind help.”

Even with money in hand, the team faced yet another, more significant hurdle. The engines they needed to fire their rockets were sold out everywhere, with more than a thousand on back-order.

So, instead of using one large engine, they linked three smaller ones that would fire sequentially to provide the necessary lift. Gibson said that her students actually performed a more difficult design task by utilizing this cluster engine configuration.

After the smoke had cleared and the rockets had been recovered at the qualification launch, the Scott Johnson Middle School seventh-grade team posted the best score for SJMS, an unofficial 48, and both teams qualified.

Based on qualification scores, the nation’s top 100 teams are invited to compete in the TARC National Finals just outside of Washington, D.C., in May. Gibson said that teams chosen for last year’s finals generally earned qualifying scores of about 16.

Whether they are invited to Washington, D.C. this spring or not, it’s hard to dispute the character, determination and skill displayed by the Scott Johnson Middle School Rocketry Group.

In the midst of the lollipop marketing and rocket building, the students have been putting science, technology, math and engineering principles to practical use, applying the skills of those disciplines while learning some valuable lessons about what it takes to succeed.

“TARC teams are all about outstanding teamwork,” said Gibson. “The struggles in the ‘give and take’ are invaluable lessons to real-life careers in their not-so-distant futures. Each launch of our rockets depended on the quality and integrity of each team member’s effort and creative problem solving. Each launch was expensive and was very important to our overall success.

"With our students' incredibly busy schedules it took the team to make it happen. We are extremely proud of each student and their parents’ efforts that helped us qualify this year,” said Gibson.

“TARC was a great experience,” said eighth-grader Bhav Bhullar, “because I didn’t know that much about rockets, and every time we got together I learned something new.  It was really fun and I am even thinking about being on another team even though I will be in high school next year. That would make me a TARC team member, a student, a mentor and a possibly a future computer engineer.”

More students will have the opportunity to get involved next year. Gibson says rocket building is now a regular part of the Scott Johnson Middle School Career and Technical Education curriculum, and the door is open for students interested in participating in TARC.

“TARC team competition at Scott Johnson will always be available for students who would like to go to the next level and compete,” said Gibson. “We anticipate that if we continue on the track we are pursuing, that we will be very competitive for the top honors in approximately three years!”

With the creativity and determination put on display by the Scott Johnson Middle School Rocketry Group on their first go-around, there is little reason to doubt that any goal is beyond their reach.  

For additional information on McKinney ISD, contact Shane Mauldin, MISD Communications Specialist, at 469-742-4007 or smauldin@mckinneyisd.net