Pilgrim Park students' rocket takes first at regional competition

The Lone Raingers beat 40 other teams to take first place at the Rockets For School competition in Sheboygan. They are (from left) Nick Watry, Tim Vrakas, Bashar Zaidat, Ryan Wolff, Suchir Bhatt, Shyam Mani, Colin Gray-Hoehn, Jack Eddinger and Andy Vrakas.

The Lone Raingers beat 40 other teams to take first place at the Rockets For School competition in Sheboygan. They are (from left) Nick Watry, Tim Vrakas, Bashar Zaidat, Ryan Wolff, Suchir Bhatt, Shyam Mani, Colin Gray-Hoehn, Jack Eddinger and Andy Vrakas.

May 20, 2013

The rocket designed by a group of Pilgrim Park Middle School students launched more than 2,700 feet up in the air and then blasted past the rest of its rivals to take first place at the Rockets For Schools competition.

More than 40 teams from five states — Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — participated in the annual contest held on the Sheboygan lakefront.

Hands-on learning

The two-day event is the culmination of a semester's worth of work combining physics, aerodynamics and electronics. Event organizers hope that watching equations fly off the page and into the sky will fuel a student's lifelong interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

The 10 students from Pilgrim Park, mostly eighth-graders, met every other school day since January to build a scientific payload, the acting agent inside a rocket that will perform a task once it reaches its intended altitude, and install it in a 6-foot rocket made of industrial cardboard and fiberglass.

Andy Vrakas, a parent with two boys on the team, volunteered to teach the class throughout the semester. Rockets For Schools provides a rough framework for the instructors to teach the class, including required texts, a computer software program that simulates rocket trajectory and a basic rocket assembly kit.

Students were encouraged to be creative in designing a payload to replicate real world applications experienced during a launch. In other words, once in the air, the rocket should do something.

The Pilgrim Park team researched atmospheric science and decided to implement a payload that could perform cloud seeding, a controversial technology that deliberately modifies weather, typically to increase rainfall or decrease fog, by dispersing chemical substances into clouds. The technology was first discovered in the 1940s and Bernard Vonnegut, author Kurt Vonnegut's brother, holds a partial patient of the method. It is widely practiced at airports to help planes safely touchdown.

The payload built by the Lone Raingers, the name the Pilgrim Park students gave themselves, included an on-board microprocessor, altimeter and deployment system capable of dispersing cloud seeding chemicals.

Once the altimeter reads a certain altitude, it spins the motor, which enables the CO2 to shoot out the material. Their rocket did not eject chemicals however — just a spray of glitter. The team wrote and uploaded computer code in order for the device to fire off properly.

Secret weapon

The rules forbid teams from test launching their rockets before the competition, so the Lone Raingers had no idea if their math checked-out. On May 3, the team traveled to Sheboygan to find out.

Team member Nick Watry said he was a little nervous about how their rocket would perform.

"We haven't been there before and we came in blind," he said. "We didn't know what to expect. We didn't know if we would get out-classed or if we would be in the middle of the pack."

On the first day of the competition, judges evaluate entries using a long list of criteria, including a rocket's artistic quality, assembly, payload complexity and logo design.

The teams are also required to give a presentation about what they learned and what their rocket aims to do. This is where the Lone Raingers said they used their secret weapon: forensics. All but one of the students also participates in the club centered around public speaking. They had no problem expressing their ideas.

"They killed it. The judges loved them," said Daniel Bateman, executive director of the organization that puts on the annual competition.

Bateman said he watched the team rehearse their presentation in the hallway and immediately noticed their team dynamic.

"They seemed to work together really well," he said. "Usually it's the coaches that need to step in and tell everyone to get serious and pay attention. But with them, it was the kids themselves that were self-regulating."

The Lone Raingers named their rocket Y.B., the initials of Yvonne Brill, a renowned rocket scientist who died earlier in the year. If anything, the team said, it added a woman's touch to an otherwise all-male team.

Science fluency

To close out the first day of the competition, NASA research scientist R. Aileen Yingst spoke to the teams about the importance of a science-based education. Yingst manages the Hand Lens Imager Camera on the Curiosity rover on Mars. She was essentially the photographer of the self-portrait photos of the machine and continues to be a part of the mission from her UW-Green Bay office.

"I don't know anything more important than having the students of this country being as fluent as math in science as they are in native language," she said. "We have a very high-tech society, and if our children are going to survive and thrive in that society, if they are going to truly make the next big discovery, they have to be fluent in math and science."

The rockets were actually launched on the second day of the competition. Students who were not actively getting their rocket ready for lift-off served a supporting role at different stations. There was video production for the live-stream broadcast, a mission control to monitor the weather and a coast guard recovery unit that fetched the rockets after splashing into the lake.

As the Lone Raingers were on deck at the launch pad, they realized they hadn't uploaded the latest version of the altitude code into the payload. In a last-minute scramble, the team borrowed a laptop computer and a connecting cord and quickly rewrote the code so that it would activate at roughly 2,700 feet.

Then they crossed their fingers, tilted their heads back and watched the rocket soar into the May sky with a booming volume. Still visible to the naked eye, they saw the poof of glitter sparkle above.

It worked.

And so what if the parachute didn't fully expand as the rocket descended into the lake and afflicted a few nicks and bruises to the nose cone. Those are first place damages.

Team Lone Raingers:

Suchir Bhatt

Riley Brien

Jack Eddinger

Colin Gray-Hoehn

Shyam Mani

Ben Vrakas

Tim Vrakas

Nick Watry

Ryan Wolff

Bashar Zaidat

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