2 Illinois teams hoping for more zoom than boom, head to rocketry nationals after a challenging year

·6 min read

Rebecca Zurek discovered her interest and talent for model rocketry through a summer camp, and knew her passion couldn’t end there. The absence of a rocketry team at her previous school, Prince of Peace Catholic, prompted her to take matters into her own hands.

The 17-year-old, a recent graduate of Carmel High School and also a member of the U.S. Space Modeling team, founded the Redhawk Rocketeers. She got support from her peers and faculty, then presented a detailed plan for the club to the school board. This month, she and the Rocketeers are going to the 19th annual national finals for The American Rocketry Challenge (TARC).

TARC, the world’s largest student rocket contest, is the Aerospace Industry Association’s flagship program that seeks to encourage middle and high school students to pursue STEM careers. Following a break last year due to the pandemic, the contest returns this month, offering teams a chance to win prizes ranging from $7,500 to $20,000.

On Friday and Saturday and June 19-20, teams from 27 states will compete at launch sites across the country. Two Illinois teams — the Redhawk Rocketeers from Lake Villa, and Atlas from Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville — are among the 100 groups of finalists. The local teams will launch at Bong Recreation Area in Kansasville, Wisconsin.

The student teams have been working all year to prepare for the challenges they will face in building and launching a model rocket that carries one raw egg to two altitudes and time goals, with rocket and egg returning to the ground intact.

Each team gets two flights: the first goal is 775 feet within 39-42 seconds, the second is 825 feet within 41-44 seconds. Scores will be the sum of those two flights.

As Rebecca prepares to take the Rocketeers to the finals alongside co-captain Luka Weideman, and the other members Brandon Czapla, Lilly Abney and Zack Massoni, she recalled her experience founding and leading the team. While their rocket club is mainly middle schoolers, it allows students to join as early as fifth grade, and students can continue throughout high school, as Rebecca did.

“A lot of people did not know about rocketry at all or what it was about,” she said. “So I had to do a lot of explaining to all my friends.”

After a while she was able to grow a team of hard-working students dedicated to building rockets. While most of the rocketry work she does outside of the club is individual, Rebecca has found that she really enjoys working as part of a team.

“Getting to work with my teammates and also seeing them grow over the years has been really awesome and inspiring to me,” she said.

Robert Zurek, an engineer, is Rebecca’s father and the club’s adviser. He teaches the kids to work with software used by professional companies, and “within a year or two they’re computer simulating their own rocket designs, designing parts in the system, creating them on a laser printer and a laser cutter and then building these up, and then adapting their models with their test launches to meet their goals,” Zurek said.

The older kids then teach the younger kids, continuing the cycle.

Zurek expressed his pride for his daughter while speaking to the Tribune on the day of her graduation. Becky, as he calls her, has always taken an interest in engineering, he said. “We knew from a young age that she liked to design and build things,” he said. “It’s really good seeing these kids turn into young, promising engineers.”

In a world where only 13% of engineers are women, students like Rebecca are making strides and breaking barriers. She will attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Rockford this fall to pursue her dream of becoming an aerospace engineer. She says the cash prize from the contest will help the Rocketeers update supplies, and help with her college tuition.

“(It) would be really nice and helpful in furthering my own journey in aerospace engineering,” she said.

It’s been a journey for the teams as well. Rocket science is challenging enough, but throw a pandemic into the mix and preparing for a national contest becomes increasingly difficult.

“Trying to tell someone how to design a rocket over Zoom is kind of like giving a haircut over the phone,” said Neuqua Valley rocketry adviser Anthony Tegtmeyer. Normally, the teams would meet in person a couple times a week to work on their rockets. Preparation this year has included “a lot of videos and a lot of Zoom time, a lot more time and effort and communicating.”

Josh Hyatt, a recent Neuqua Valley graduate and one of the seven members on Atlas, emphasized the difficulty the pandemic has imposed this past year. His team was the only one from six or seven at his school to make the finals this year.

Hyatt said the competition, usually held in Washington, D.C., will still be fun but will have a “different atmosphere,” since it will be spread across 10 regions. The COVID-19 pandemic also ruined his team’s chances of getting a free trip to Paris for an international competition, which is usually awarded to the first-place team at nationals. The trip was canceled.

While the students do enjoy their craft, “It’s not all fun and games; it’s like a sport,” Tegtmeyer said. “I’m really proud of these guys — they have worked super-duper hard. These (rockets) are all custom-designed and custom-made.”

“They’re troopers,” he said of the kids. “They’ve tried to stay really positive.”

The students have found ways to excel despite challenges induced by the pandemic, including Zoom practices, virtual launches and calculations in addition to social distancing guidelines. “It’s been really difficult trying to work around everyone’s schedule and how people are comfortable meeting,” Rebecca said. “Sometimes it’s just been me and Luka at a launch trying to get everything together.”

Programs like TARC encourage students to hone their passions from a young age. Weidman, the other co-captain of the Rocketeers, joined the team while in middle school. TARC is geared toward students who have an interest in rocketry and STEM, but Zurek says the skills can be applied to a variety of disciplines, including technical skills like computer simulations and software, as well as teamwork and public speaking.

“A lot of the kids who started off in this rocketry club were really quiet, really shy and reserved,” said Zurek. After years of training and presenting in front of school officials and at science fairs, the students have grown in confidence.

And as the two teams head to the finals, their coaches offer words of advice. Zurek encourages his students to “find that area (of STEM) that interests them, and pursue that.”

Tegtmeyer tells his students, “Try and fail a lot. You don’t fail unless you quit.”


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