Burrell rocketry teams shoot for national championship
As a youngster, Rod Schafer of Lower Burrell dreamed of becoming an astronaut.
Raised during the Space Shuttle era, Schafer's ultimate goal after high school was to join the Air Force, get an education and apply at NASA.
But a tragic accident resulting in the amputation of two fingers and part of another one from his left hand forced a career change.
“I was not able to join the service,” Schafer says.
Instead, Schafer directed his fascination with space to rocketry, a hobby Schafer began in 1984 while attending Burrell High School.
Now 34 years later, Schafer has extended his enthusiasm and expertise from his rocketry hobby to Burrell School District, where he acts as a mentor, volunteering his time weekly with 15 students from Huston Middle and Burrell High School Rocketry Teams, meeting in the makerspace and wood shop rooms respectively at both schools.
Schafer has been employed at Burrell School District for 27 years as a custodian and most recently in the maintenance department.
Burrell's rocketry teams will compete against more than 800 teams nationally in the Team America Rocketry Challenge 2018 — co-sponsored by the National Association of Rocketry and the Aerospace Industries Association.
The Team America Rocketry Challenge is touted as a premier STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program for young people. It is the largest rocket competition in the world, enrolling more than 65,000 students nationally since its 2003 beginning.
In 2017, 5,000 students, representing 47 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, entered the program.
The Burrell Rocketry Team, which any student in grades 7 to 12 can join, is funded with grant money, and originally was a “one and done program” within the district, Schafer says.
“It was successful (competing at finals their inaugural year) and the district was supportive and kept it,” says Schafer, who writes most of his grants and is not compensated for his hours logged weekly with the teams at both schools.
To qualify for the finals, held annually in May in Virginia, a team of middle or high school students must design and construct a rocket capable of transporting two raw hen's eggs weighing 55 to 61 grams and measuring 45 millimeters or less up into the sky, reaching exactly 800 feet and remaining airborne for 41 to 43 seconds before returning to Earth intact. Damaged eggs mean a dreaded DQ (disqualified).
“The students use the egg carton cups and lots of foam to protect their eggs in flight,” Schafer says.
Each team is allowed three qualification flights between now and April 2, 2018. The two best scores from the three are combined for a final score and the top 100 scores nationally are determined from hundreds (812 last year) of teams nationwide.
The top 100 teams compete for 10 top awards and prize money in the thousands to be split by team members.
Schafer proposed the district implement rocketry in 2004. The program has increased in members and the team has qualified for the finals in the national competition in 2004, 2005, 2012 and 2013.
“Model rocketry always interested me and I like to work with my hands,” says Ian Marino, a Burrell student on the high school team of five. “Last year, we just missed qualifying with our rocket, Big Bird.”
Launch day is held annually at Shank Farm in Lower Burrell. Rural acreage without overhead power lines allow for a optimal launch site.
Calm and clear weather is a requirement on launch day, says senior team member Drew Murphy.
“Wind is a big problem,” Murphy says. “We like to have no rain and wind is non-negotiable.”
Murphy plans to pursue engineering in college and credits the Burrell rocketry program with developing his STEM skills.
Burrell student Trent Lakatos is new to the high school rocketry team this year; he joined at the urging from a friend.
“They said it was fun and I can be creative with this,” Lakatos says.
Still hopeful that 2017 may be “the year” the team wins, Schafer says the program is working.
“I have had 100 percent positive compliments from administrators, teachers, parents and the many students that have participated in the Burrell Rocketry program over 14 years,” Schafer says. “Many of my students have gone on to study STEM-related fields in college.”
Joyce Hanz is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.