No launch an opportunity to learn
A key phrase of the SystemsGo rocket science program has always been “Failure is an option.”
But after the most recent trip by Fredericksburg High School students to White Sands Missile Range in White Sands, New Mexico, the better statement might be, “Failure is not the opposite of success.” That is what local students are saying after returning from their launch attempt in June.
Simply put, their rocket motor did not ignite. According to preliminary reports, the cause was either a frozen injector valve or a frayed electrical connection. While it did not get off the launch rail, team member Zane Brown was quick to point out that the rocket did get on the launch rail.
“The positive part is that the thing we tested the most was that charge — under all temperature and pressure conditions — and it worked every single time in testing,” said Brown, who graduated from FHS in June and plans to study aerospace engineering at Texas A&M University in the fall. “So the one thing I feel best about was that the system that failed was a freak thing. It was not any shortcoming on our end, just something we could not control.”
That type of learning and analysis is the basis of SystemsGo, the project-based Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curriculum first developed by Brett Williams while teaching at FHS in the 1990s. (See History sidebar.)
Andrew Matthes currently teaches the FHS program. For a while, it was “touch and go” whether his students would even make the deadline. In other words, it was like any similar project would be in real life.
“For a while, the students weren’t making much progress on the rocket,” Matthes said. “I was ready to shut it down, but all of a sudden the sight of the grim reaper brought them back.”
The students refocused, calling on local experts such as Tim Morin at SRM Manufacturing for help on welding the aluminum fuel tank. At the end, after working on the project for the entire school year, the students pulled it together in less than a week.
“It is important that the students know how proud I am of them,” Matthes said. “Even though the rocket didn’t fly, it is a phenomenal accomplishment to be able to complete this project. They basically do in eight months what industry would do, but they only get one chance to test it. There is no ‘back to the drawing board.’ It takes courage to know they only get to test it once.”
While the issue seemed to center on the injector nozzle, according to the philosophical approach of SystemsGo, the actual problem is not as important as the approach to analyzing and solving it.
That philosophy is finding a foothold with teachers and schools across the state and beyond. There are now 44 high schools in Texas using the curriculum, and this fall SystemsGo will expand beyond the border, starting in schools in New Mexico.
Another reflection of the continued growth of the program is that the White Sands trip is growing in both the number of schools participating and the ratio of launch successes. For many years, only FHS made the trip. (FHS was the first high school to launch rockets at a federal missile range and still holds the national records for largest, fastest, and highest vehicles designed and developed by high school students.)
But this year, five schools took seven rockets to WSMR, including Alamo Heights, Union Grove, Booker T. Washington (Houston), Anahuac and Fredericksburg. To get four of seven off the rail was a “significant achievement” according to Scott Netherland, Executive Director of SystemsGo.
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