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Rocket girls buck trend: WNY schools send all women teams to national competition

Students from Holland High School, Nardin Academy and Buffalo Academy of the Sacred Heart journey to Washington Friday to take part in this year's National Rocketry Challenge, sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association.

And not only are area schools sending a record number of competitors this year, but this year all  the participants from the Buffalo-area are young women.

"We'd like to be able to get a little more diversity and get a boys team next year, which is kind of backwards in science and technology but this is pretty good for the girls team," said Ira Johnson, an engineer at Moog Inc. in East Aurora, which sends staff to mentor teams across Western New York.

Out of 800 teams nationwide, 100 get invited to nationals, based solely on rocket performance scores.  This is the first time that Western New York had four teams of any gender qualify.

Nardin -- with two teams that qualified -- and Sacred Heart are both all-female schools. The Holland team comes from a traditional, co-educational public school where boys could have also been on the team, but weren't.

"It's pretty crazy, especially because science and math are careers that men go into, but I think it's a really good example of the power of girls and women, that we can do just as much as men can do," says Sarah Crawford, a Nardin sophomore from Williamsville. She's considering a career in either science or law.

Even though female students are on par with male student in math and science proficiency, the leading Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields are still male-dominated. Only 18 percent of all current college engineering students are women, but 25 years ago only 5 percent were female. according to the WNY Stem Hub, which organizes various  collaborations to boost STEM learning in WNY.

On a muddy athletic field at East Aurora High School the teams held a final practice session on Saturday, to iron out rocket performance issues, working on everything from bent fins to improperly installed igniters.

"The biggest thing, what it really gives them, is problem-solving skills," says Ronald Stepien, the Sacred Heart team advisor who teaches physics. He adds that the students teach him as much as he teaches them.

In the competition, each rocket must reach the altitude of 800 feet (computed from time and force measurements) and achieve a launch-to-landing time of 41 to 42 seconds.  For every foot they are off on the time, they are given one point; every second outside the overall time window receives 4 points. The lowest score wins.

In the team's second flight, the tournament will change the target numbers and the students must re-calibrate their rockets accordingly.

Nardin team advisor Katie Swanson holds a rocket while a team member applies glue to a misaligned fin that sent the rocket spiraling off the launch pad on an earlier flight.

"It's real world experience, so just instead of spouting numbers at them, they can actually see the differences,' says Nardin advisor Katie Swanson.

"The thing that I love is the amount of failure they have to deal with.  In the beginning launches, something always went wrong and they would have to figure it out and they all just stuck with it."

The Nardin team was founded by one of those students who wants to do this for a career.  Junior Cassie Whittemore says a job with NASA is her dream, and she even wore their  logo on her hat at last weekend's practice.

"I am inspired by what we are doing here. I'm so happy that Nardin has a team, an all-girls team from Holland, and Sacred Heart," she says. "It makes me feel like I can really do it, I can keep going with it."

MORE ON THETeam America Rocketry Challenge

Moog's Lance Over checks the wiring on a rocket igniter.

At the launch pad, Moog's Lance Over -- himself the father of six girls -- mused on the changes he's seen in  the field since he started at the cmpany in 1981.

"The whole company was basically all male, and all dressed in white shirts and ties.  And over the years we've seen a gradual change, from us losing the ties to having more women come in," he says. "And right now we have more women engineers than male engineers so it really is balancing out as the years go on."

Competition organizers say nationally more than 5,000 girls have competed in the program since 2015.

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