Competition Launches Interest in STEM

May 18, 2011
By Rita Boland, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

One hundred teams from around the country gathered in Virginia last week to compete in the ninth annual Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) finals. The event gives students in seventh through 12th grades the chance to experience math and science in action with the hope that practical application will encourage them to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in their higher education and careers.

A team from Rockwall-Heath High School, comprising seniors John Easum—the team president—Michael Gerritsen and Colt McNally and junior Landon Fisher, won the contest with a score of 16.0. Students were tasked with designing and building rockets that lift off to exactly 750 feet during 40- to 45-second flights. Each rocket carried as a payload a raw egg that had to return undamaged to the ground via parachute. "You get a point assigned to you for every foot that you're off the 750-foot altitude, and you get a point against you for every second [outside] the 40- to 45-second range," explains Susan Lavrakas, director of work force at the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a main sponsor of the event. "So the lower the score the more perfectly you met the specifications."

All 100 teams made one flight in the competition with the top 20 moving on to a second flight. Final scores were based on the points from both flights. Approximately 600 teams competed at a chance to attend the final competition, and a guest team from Japan attended the last round. Teams can be sponsored by schools or by nonprofit youth organizations not involved in rocketry such as Scouts, 4-H or Civil Air Patrol. The Rockwall-Heath team will travel to the Paris Le Bourget Air Show to compete against teams from the United Kingdom and France on June 24. Raytheon Company is providing support and funding for that trip. 

Lavrakas says events such as TARC are absolutely essential to ensuring that U.S. companies have a clearable talent pool from which to hire employees for STEM jobs. Though the competition is nearly a decade old, she says AIA is more focused than ever in supporting methods that help young people see pathways into careers in aerospace. Mentors and advisers from the National Association of Rocketry and the American Association of Physics Teachers—also TARC sponsors—give students access to STEM professionals.  

"This is a means for young people to have a hands-on learning activity that helps them learn math and science skills and subject matter, but more than just learning the subject matter they apply it to a real-world situation," Lavrakas explains. "We find that that kind of an experience is critical in getting young people to understand why they need math and science."

According to a 2010 study of TARC alumni, nine out of 10 respondents plan to take four years of math in high school and 86 percent plan to do the same in college. Eighty-one percent plan to major in a STEM-related area, while 71 percent plan to pursue a STEM career. In terms of aeronautics and aerospace, 42 percent said they would very likely pursue those fields as a career, and 70 percent said they are somewhat likely to do so.

Additional sponsors of the event include the U.S. Defense Department, NASA and Estes along with more than 30 aerospace industry partners. A complete list of standings and scores is available at

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