Launching Inspiration: Student Starts Rocket Contest for Middle Schools

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When Cassidy McCool was 4, her grandfather asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Like most preschool children, McCool had no clue.

“He said, ‘why don’t you be an astronaut?’” she recalls. “I don’t know what it is about that, but I always held on to it.”

Growing up, McCool would study astronomy and space exploration on her own, watching documentaries and reading books her parents bought her.

Now a junior in mechanical engineering at The University of Alabama, McCool continues dreaming of working in the aerospace industry after graduation, but along the way, she hopes to inspire the next generation to find enthusiasm about space exploration.

To do that, McCool helped found and manage the Tuscaloosa Rocketry Challenge, a program where UA students help local sixth-grade students learn about and develop simple rockets for a contest.

In its second year, about 600 students in three nearby middle schools participated in the program, and McCool hopes to expand it this year.

“We are obsessed with space because we want to be the people exploring the next frontier,” McCool says. “We’re the generation that’s going to send humans to Mars. We want to go above and beyond what others have
done before us. We want these sixth-graders to literally shoot for the stars, and to broaden their minds because life’s not about keeping your feet on the ground.”

A native of Duncanville in Tuscaloosa County, she hopes to work for NASA or a private space company after graduation, and she dreams of one day starting her own company. McCool credits her family for fostering her creativity and passion for science, but says she understands not every child has that support system.

She also realizes secondary and primary schools often struggle for the resources to teach deeper science and engineering lessons.

So she became ecstatic when, after becoming involved with Alabama Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, or AL SEDS, McCool was asked to help co-found an outreach program for middle school students.

“[Our president] mentioned it, and I just ran away with it,” she says. “Our mission is to educate our community on the importance of space exploration. The Tuscaloosa Rocketry Challenge helps engage everyone with interest in space exploration at UA, and it gives our club a purpose.”

With the help of many UA student volunteers, AL SEDS coordinated the Tuscaloosa Rocketry Challenge, initially reaching out to McCool’s former school, Hillcrest Middle School, south of the UA campus. This year the challenge expanded to Duncanville and Echols middle schools, also in the Tuscaloosa County School System. UA students educate sixth-grade students by leading a three-day lecture series on such topics as space exploration, basic Newtonian physics and water-rocket building. On the final day, using materials such as two-liter bottles, duct tape and foam, the students are shown how to construct the rockets.

The sixth-grade students formed teams and designed their own rockets for a “Battle of the Classes,” where winning teams were chosen to compete in a final challenge. About 100 students made it to the final Tuscaloosa Rocketry Challenge.

During the competition, rockets launched from an air-pressurized pad aimed across the football field. Afterward, UA students measure the distance each rocket traveled and helped the middle-school students identify design factors that boosted efficiency or hindered performance.

The top three teams received a trophy, and members got the opportunity to come to UA and work alongside engineering students on their space-related projects.

“There’s a lot of math involved,” McCool says. “There’s a lot of science happening, but it’s very simple, and they can understand it. They do everything. We just give them the concepts.”

McCool hopes to eventually reach all the middle schools in Tuscaloosa County because teaching science is more meaningful than donating money, she says.

“We could simply host a fundraiser, but you will never understand the difference you can make until you are physically in the classroom sharing what you know and love with these students,” she says. “The purpose of this program is to cultivate our students’ problem-solving abilities and to help our community realize that space exploration is relevant and impacts our lives daily.”

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s College of Engineering has more than 5,800 students and more than 130 faculty. In recent years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Boren, Mitchell and Truman scholars.