With saws whirring and sandpaper scraping, students in Marsha Hancock’s class at Hobbs High School were hard at work recently preparing for their first foray into the world of rockets.
“I got interested while I was helping with recoveries” at previous SystemGo launch days, said sophomore Kameron Stogner, 15. “It’s a science class so it goes for credits. I just thought it would be enjoyable.”
Launch day this year is Monday through Wednesday on Woolworth Trust land north of Jal.
Rocketry teams from around New Mexico gather annually to test their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills by sending rockets into the sky.
There are two categories teams compete in. In the first — the one the Hobbs High School teams are building for — the challenge is to send a rocket one-mile into the air carrying a one-pound payload. The other challenge is for students — typically during their second year in the SystemsGO program — is to build a rocket that will break the speed of sound.
Hancock said the program is a great way for students to get exposure to the principals of STEM education with hands-on application. And while she supports career and technical education, she’s also sold on the benefits of learning about science and engineering as well.
“This is primarily rocket science,” Hancock said. “But it’s also to teach engineering (and) creative thinking, teamwork.
“Rockets are important because this ties in with STEM, the science as well as the engineering part. I’d like to see more students interested in science. And I like to encourage more hands-on learning.”
The Hobbs program starts out with smaller rockets. These aren’t the model kits that can be bought at hobby stores, though, Hancock said. Students start with special cardboard tubes, sheets of balsa wood to make rocket fins and prefabricated nose cones and build their own rockets from scratch.
They’ll end up building and launching three smaller rockets to learn the basics of the designs before moving onto the full-size models, Hancock said. They use software called RockSym that first helps them perfect their designs, then test them virtually, she said. The same software is used to design and test the full-sized rockets, too.
“They can build the rocket to spec in the computer, plug the specifications into the software and it simulates the rocket,” Hancock said. “It lets they do a simulated launch to find out if their design works or what problems there may be.”
Hancock first trained to run the local SystemGo rocket program in 2019, then everything got shut down by COVID-19 in 2020, she said. She tried to get students involved in projects online, from designing a motorized wheelchair to fit certain specifications to building carriers to protect raw eggs when dropped from varying heights.
“We weren’t able to build a big rocket” the first year, Hancock said. “It was frustrating to me.”
And this isn’t your typical class, she said. The idea is for students to do most if not all the research with just gentle nudges in the correct direction from the instructor. It’s not a way of learning most of her students are used to, Hancock said.
“It’s tough for them in the beginning because there’s no manual and I don’t really tell them what to do,” she said. “I’m not supposed to tell them what to do. The idea is for the students to figure it out for them selves, with research and a gentle push.”
Students also are required to provide judges a complete checklist on launch day of everything they’ve done to prepare their rocket. If the checklist isn’t complete when the rocket is inspected before it flies, it doesn’t fly, Hancock said. Judges will send the students home without ever reaching the launch pad.
The checklist “helps them focus on all the things they need to know,” Hancock said. “Are there any sharp edges? Have you double-checked everything? What kind of altimeter do you have in the rocket?”
That altimeter — a device that measures and records how high the rocket flies — was the responsibility of sophomore Jose Nieto this year at HHS. He was charged by his team with installing all the electronics on their rocket, something he said he’d never tried before.
“This is my first time working with anything like this,” Nieto said. “It’s kind of difficult, complicated at first. But it gets easier.
“I took the class because I thought it sounded cool. It’s really fun – you get to learn about building rockets and teamwork.”
One of three girls in the class, Aryana Macias, 16, is getting her first experience with rockets as well. She and Hancock are both excited to have young women interested in engineering and science, disciplines that for too long have been almost exclusively male, they said.
To other girls interested in rocketry — or science in general — Macias had one thing to say: “Take charge. The boys don’t have to do it all.
If you want to do something just do it.
“This is a good way for girls to get involved in science. It’s a good way for girls who are interested in science to get into it.”