While most high school students were enjoying vacation during the summer months, a group of young rocket scientists traveled with their teacher to White Sands Missile Range (WSMR) in New Mexico, with the goal of launching two rockets they designed and built.
The budding engineers were in Rocketry classes taught by Lang, part of a statewide science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) curriculum called SystemsGo Aeroscience. The course takes a “project based” approach to learning-an approach Lang embraces.
“Only 3% of seniors are going into engineering,” Lang said. “This program gives these students the opportunity to do amazing things. When you look at a rocket leaving the ground that is an amazing accomplishment. Not many people can say they’ve done that. However, that’s not the final product. The product is the skills they take when they leave here.”
As they advance through the program, students start by building small model rockets as they learn the principles of flight. They move up in scale to vehicles that launch a one-pound payload one mile high. The next level involves reaching the sound barrier. The highest level, Goddard, requires students to design and build a rocket that launches at the U.S. Army-run WSMR.
Only five high schools qualified to travel to WSMR this summer, and this was Alamo Heights’ fourth attempt. For the first time, both vehicles successfully left the launch tower, achieving altitudes of 16,000 feet and 34,000 feet. They are now one of only three high schools in the nation to achieve that goal. For that, they are received the SystemsGo Goddard Level Diamond Award.
“This demonstrates the ability of high school students to design and build a vehicle and launch it at WSMR,” said Gene Garrett, Captain U.S. Navy (Retired), and president of the SystemsGo board. “Alamo Heights should be proud. This shows the ability to take knowledge and research and put it together into a project, and be successful.”
Lang started the program nine years ago when he was hired at the district. He had brought his interest in building rockets, and proposed installing the SystemsGo Aeroscience program that had been started at Fredericksburg High School in 1996 under the direction of teacher Brett Williams. Williams had students build and launch rockets as a way to develop skills and interest in STEM courses. The program has been featured on NBC Nightly News, is endorsed by NASA and certified by The Space Foundation. It is now used in about 40 high schools in Texas, and will begin expansion to neighboring states next year.
“Brett had just visited Alamo Heights the week before my interview,” Lang recalled. “I walked in a week later with the story of my rocketry background, and said I really want to do this program here. The administration said, let’s do it. We haven’t looked back since.”
Lang teaches all four levels of the program, culminating in Rocketry I and II. Every year teams from 50 Texas high schools travel to Fredericksburg or Houston to launch those rockets. This year’s launch will be May 12-15 at the Willow City launch site near Fredericksburg.
Lang cited the support his students receive from the community. That includes Gates Manufacturing, Dr. Kenneth Maverick, Texas Biomedical Research Foundation, the Alamo Heights School Foundation, and many parents.
“We are blessed to have so much community support,” Lang said. “We have our own machine shop, and can do our own milling, welding, and fabrication. It’s just phenomenal what we can do here.”
The real benefit of the aeroscience program is the way it launches students’ careers, he said. Lang can recite many examples of success stories he’s seen happen among his students, from watching kids who “hated” math and science become engineers, to keeping students from dropping out.
“I had one young man who hated school and was failing math and science,” Lang said. “He got into our program, helped build the ‘one-mile’ rocket, and ended up getting two scholarships and interning for NASA. We are so proud of him.”
So, will there be another attempt next year?
“Yes,” Lang said. “We have two rockets going back. We’re hoping this year we can break the altitude record.”
*Top image: Alamo Heights High School rocketry students pose for a photo with their rocket at White Sands Missile Range. Courtesy image.