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UNA launches rocketry challenge

“It’s the only competition like it in the state and probably nationwide.”

That’s AMSTI science specialist Lee Brownell’s thought on the upcoming University of North Alabama Rocketry Challenge, which will include six Franklin County teams among 23 from across the state. The Challenge will also serve as a qualifier for the Team America Rocketry Challenge – which last year was won by Russellville High School, sending the RCS Engineering team on to become world champions.

The UNA Rocketry Challenge is set for March 19 and features two parts: a presentation, which will take place on UNA’s east campus, and a rocket launch, which will be held at the Florence Sportsplex. Rocket launches will begin about 9:30 a.m. and are open to public viewing.

“If it’s anything like our first workshop – we had about 200 people there,” Brownell said.

Brownell, through the rocketry hub he initiated at UNA and with support from the Huntsville Area Rocketry Association, has provided workshops and other training for junior high and high school rocketry teams from across the state. “Some of them had never touched a rocket,” Brownell said. RCS Engineering students have been able to lend a hand at each workshop, helping train other students how to use the software to design a rocket and then how to actually fabricate the rocket.

Teams that achieve good launch results may choose to use their results for the TARC qualifier. Five of Franklin County’s six teams have registered for TARC this year.

“Our team is not quite ready,” said RBHS team sponsor Leah Torisky. “Red Bay actually has two teams, so we have two rockets. Both rockets are complete, but we are still working on getting our altitude and time just right. So currently, we are just launching with different motors and making modifications to our rocket.”

Sponsoring agencies have helped provide free training and materials for UNA hub rocketry teams, including Aeroject Rocketdyne, Torch Technologies, Aerospace Specialty Products and Dynetics.

Brownell, in addition to actively promoting the UNA hub, has also been working to generate interest in the creation of other hubs, potentially at Auburn and West Alabama. He has seen firsthand the way competition helps engage students and get them invested in education.

“When I was still at Russellville, we were building an arm on a robot for BEST, and Andrew was working with a sixth grader and explaining trigonometry to him,” Brownell said. He remembers being shocked to realize the sixth grader was understanding every word and showing genuine interest in the high-level mathematic principles. “They were talking about forces and motion and levers and things they won’t get to until physics. And he was eating it up because he knew he needed to know that in order to make his team successful. I just sat there and watched it. I thought, ‘This is what it’s all about.’”

He said programs like rocketry teams help instill confidence and engender an interest in STEM disciplines.

“I have seen a real struggle with my students as they have had to become very good problem solvers,” Torisky said. “I think these types of skills will be very relevant and helpful to them in college and in the workforce.

“My students would probably tell you that at times rocketry has driven them crazy with failed launches, missed times and altitudes, and even a small fire,” Torisky added. “But I think now that things are moving in the right direction, I believe they would tell you that it is very rewarding to see their product soar.”

Torisky said working with the UNA hub and having expert advice from Brownell has been crucial for Red Bay’s success.

“I honestly don’t think we could have completed this competition or prepared for it without Mr. Brownell,” she said. “He has been such a great resource as we have run into problems along the way. He knows just how to point a kid in the right direction without giving them all of the answers. He is a blessing to my students.

Following the rocketry competition, the UNA hub will be focusing on Underwater Lions, an underwater robotics competition similar to the well-established SeaPerch underwater robotics program.

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