The casual observer might never guess that the students who gather after school in Dr. Maqsuda Afroz’s science classroom at César E. Chávez High School are anything but ordinary high schoolers. They gossip and smack-talk and speculate about the future, most of them seniors with one foot out the door. Few would guess that these “average high schoolers” are in fact literal rocket scientists.
The Chávez Rocketry Club, headed by Afroz, spends two afternoons a week (and sometimes lunch periods or whatever scraps of free time they can get) designing and engineering model rockets for an international competition, The American Rocketry Challenge.
The American Rocketry Challenge tasks student participants with designing rockets and bringing those designs to life, overcoming engineering hurdles and solving complex equations to create launchable rockets that operate inside of the competition’s parameters for success. The rockets’ flight is scored based on their total flight duration and the greatest altitude achieved. Additionally, each rocket contains precious cargo: a single hen’s egg, which must survive the journey from the ground, into the sky, and back to Earth again without sustaining any cracks or other external damage.
“I’ve learned a lot from this competition, mostly specifics with engineering and doing all the math, dealing with a ton of different variables and working out small kinks, like knowing that a tiny mistake could lead to a perfect rocket exploding,” said Ethan Tran, a senior who is participating in the Chávez Rocketry Club the American Rocketry Challenge for his second year in a row. “Whenever I’m doing this type of stuff, my brain is in a million different places at once, but it’s always thinking cohesively.”
Tran and his teammates performed test launches of their prototype rockets on the Chávez soccer field on Sept. 22, their first test flights as they ready to qualify for the National Finals Fly-Off in May. The team will complete three qualification flights and were invited to perform these flights at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, one of the perks of building rockets in Space City.
The National Finals Fly-Off will take place in Washington D.C. on May 18, with a top prize of $20,000.
The real challenge of the competition, according to Afroz, is getting there. Afroz devotes a good amount of her free time and personal resources to mentoring and providing materials for the Chávez Rocketry Club, and the cost for the team to travel to D.C. is significant. The students are attacking the problem of cost with fundraising strategies that dominate the whiteboard in Afroz’s classroom.
“The Rocketry Club means different things for each of them,” Afroz said. “For some of them, it’s just about college applications, it looks great on their resumes. For others, it’s literally the thing that holds them together and makes them want to come to school. It becomes the reason that they end up graduating.”
Wherever her students end up after high school, Afroz is confident that their time in the Chávez Rocketry Club will color the way they perceive a challenge for the rest of their lives. Despite her students’ skepticism, Afroz is sincere when she tells them that she can’t wait for them to surpass her successes and see how far they can go.
“If they can do rocketry, they can do anything,” said Afroz. “Because it’s not rocket science.”