St. Agnes middle schoolers win state honors, compete in D.C.

by Carolyn Kaberline

ROELAND PARK — It was a challenge like none they had faced before:  Design, build and fly a rocket carrying two raw eggs to an altitude of 850 feet and return it to ground with the eggs uncracked within 44-46 seconds.

The seventh- and eighth-graders from St. Agnes School in Roeland Park were up to the challenge, however, and made it to the national finals of the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) in Washington, D.C., one of only two schools in Kansas and one of 100 in the nation to do so.

According to Gena Schleimer, St. Agnes middle school science teacher and rocketry team coach, the venture began last November when 20 seventh- and eighth-grade students decided to use their weekly STREAM — Science Technology Religion Engineering Arts Mathematics — time, along with one afterschool meeting a week, to work on the contest.

“The students were randomly divided into two TARC teams as the rules allow for a maximum of 10 students per team,” said Schleimer. “We heard about the competition from our sponsor, Kansas STARBASE. I had worked at STARBASE for eight years prior to working at St. Agnes. They said they would sponsor our team if I would coach it. And, of course, I said yes!”

The world’s largest student rocket contest, TARC was created in the fall of 2002 as a one-time celebration of the centennial of flight, but it proved so popular that it has been held every year since as a way to promote a strong U.S. workforce in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Almost 4000 students from across the nation compete in TARC every year with the top 100 teams competing in Washington, D.C., for more than $100,000 in cash and scholarships.

In addition, the overall winning team goes on to compete in the International Rocketry Challenge held in the United Kingdom in July.

While the contest is open to students in grades 7 to 12, most teams come from high schools.

Since this was the St. Agnes students’ first time to compete in the national contest, they enlisted the aid of Gary Cole, a mentor listed on the TARC website, who suggested the group learn more about rockets and how they function by putting together small rocket kits as a guide.

After successful launches with these, parts were ordered for their competition rockets, which were to be based on designs the students produced through RockSim, a rocket simulation program.

As the building commenced, students assigned themselves different jobs on the teams, ranging from design, building and marketing to rules and regulations. A team captain was also selected to be responsible for the team dynamics and to serve as the liaison between the team and the teacher. Students had to meet with their captain before they asked questions of the adults to make sure they couldn’t come up with the answer as a team.

When students completed their rockets, they met with Cole to go over the center of gravity and center of pressure.

“It was during this meeting that we realized that only one team had a rocket that would be able to compete,” said Schleimer. “While it was disappointing for Team Minions to not be able to compete at nationals, they worked super hard and learned many things that will help them be successful next season.

“Team Avengers had a rocket that would be able to launch and hopefully come in at the correct time and altitude and have no cracked eggs.”

Schleimer said that scoring was based on reaching the exact height in the time required. For every second over or under the required time, a team is penalized four points; for every foot over or under the required height, a team is penalized one point.

“We were able to launch our first [rocket] a total altitude of 852 feet with a time of 46.87 [seconds]. This gave us a qualifying score of 5.44 — the best being a perfect 0,” explained Schleimer. Both eggs were unbroken during this launch.

“Our second launch was a total of 850 feet — exactly the requirement — with a time of 47.53 [seconds], giving us a qualifying score of 6.12, with again both eggs unbroken. Those two scores were added together for a final score of 11.56.”

“We had to wait one week, until April 8, when all finalists would be announced,” she said, adding that the excitement was palpable in the entire middle school that day as students waited for the announcement.

When it finally came, “we all burst out into the hallway, hugging and jumping around screaming, ‘We’re going to Washington, D.C.!’” recalled Schleimer.

“Mrs. Sullivan, our principal, soon joined in the celebration and then our fundraising officially began,” she added.

St. Agnes proved an amazing community of support, said Schleimer, with “so many people [willing to] donate money, as well as corporate sponsors that were approached and were excited to help us fund our trip to D.C.”

That trip included 13 students, parent chaperones and two teachers who traveled to the national finals held on May 14. While the St. Agnes Avengers didn’t win the event, they still had “an amazing day.”

“The team got the rocket ready and launched in between the 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. window,” said Schleimer. “The wind was definitely a factor as it was blowing harder by the minute. After countdown, the Avengers’ rocket went 838 feet with a time of 49 seconds. Out of 101 teams, we scored 26 and made it to the second round.

“Unfortunately, the weather turned for the worst and we were unable to launch for a second time.”

Despite the lack of a second launch, the team still finished the competition in 29th place in the nation, said Schleimer.

“This is such an amazing tribute to the hard work and dedication of amazing seventh- and eighth-graders,” she said. “They finished their first ever TARC competition in the top three percent of the nation.”

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