What two teenagers from a struggling school district, bitten by the rocketry bug, can teach us about creating a new generation of scientists and engineers
With bright pops and trailing screams, hand-built rockets fly toward the sun in graceful (occasionally precarious) arcs. High school students from across the country huddle together anxiously, waiting for their turns to compete in the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC). The task is not easy: Each rocket has to propel two eggs to an altitude of 800 feet and return them safely to the ground within 43 to 47 seconds. The tension subsides only when competitors hear the faint crack from their rocket at the peak of flight, indicating the parachute has deployed and the cargo has a chance of survival. Some rockets perform exceptionally; others misfire. But with every "three, two, one... launch!" the crowd's attention grows intensely focused. Rocket launches, however many dozen in a row, do not stop being cool.
It's a warm but thankfully unhumid day in The Plains, Virginia, about 45 miles west of Washington, D.C. Wesley Carter and Darius Hooker, two high school seniors from Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee, are making final adjustments -- compensating for a two-knot breeze and low humidity -- to their white 90 centimeter rocket.
"It's pretty tense right now; I'm just trying to hope everything goes according to plan," Carter tells me minutes before the launch.
It has taken three years of planning, drafting plans on computer software, and meticulous trial-and-error for these Memphis teens to compete against America's top 100 model rocketry teams. And they almost didn't make it to the contest.
After they beat out hundreds of other teams in a qualifier round, Carter and Hooker did not have the $7,500 needed to come to Washington and compete. A newspaper editorial inspired a local media blitz, nicknaming them "the fly boys," and members of the Memphis community rallied the only team from the Mid-South to qualify for the prestigious contest.
For students who develop a singular passion, a straight line connecting education to the workforce makes sense.
It was a welcome bit of good news for the Memphis City School district, which often doesn't receive any. The area has an uneasy history, fraught with racial tensions and extreme class divides. Most recently, the district announced that up to 150 of its teachers are being recommended for firing due to poor performance. Commercial Appeal, a Memphis newspaper, reports that 20 percent of the districts' 6,400 teachers scored "below expectations" or "significantly below expectations" on their evaluations.
Additionally, there isn't much good news about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education in America. On the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in science, 70 percent of America eighth graders scored below proficiency.
And American industries are worried about their future workers. According to a Aerospace Industries Association survey, 23 percent of its employees will be eligible to retire in two years, but "sufficient numbers of young people are not prepared for or pursuing math and science careers to replace the workforce."
In this light, Carter and Hooker represent a rare success for two struggling systems: They are from one the poorest metropolitan areas in the country, in one of the worst school systems in the state, but they are pursuing careers in a field that many people their age have discounted. And they are excelling. What counts for their success?
Carter grew up in the shadow of Memphis International airport. The neighborhood was rough, he tells me, which pushed his interests indoors. "They would make the kids fight -- and I really didn't like that," he says. "I stepped away from everyone, stayed on the computer a lot. I just became a computer geek."
But when he did venture out, he was able to witness something that kindled a sense of awe in him. "What really inspired me was walking outside and just seeing an airplane take off," he says.
Hooker tells a similar story, growing up near the high school in a neighborhood that became increasingly rough. "I was always the hands-on type of person," Hooker says. "I was always the person that tore up the Xbox just to see what's inside."
To its credit, Memphis City Schools offer several "optional" programs in fields like aviation, engineering, and health care, and place no geographic restrictions on which students can attend them. For Carter and Hooker, Wooddale's four-year aviation program (the only one of its kind in the Mid-South) was an immediate draw. Alongside traditional class work, they trained for private pilots' licenses and studied aviation and rocket science.
In the face of the recession and declining numbers of skilled technical workers, a key piece of the Obama administration's education plan is a renewed emphasis on Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs, just like the one Carter and Hooker attended at Wooddale. Today's CTE programs are not the vocational curricula of the past, which focused solely on trade education. They include college prep as well, giving students more options after graduation. To fund them, the Education Department is calling for the renewal and retooling of the Perkins Act. The act was last renewed in 2006, under President Bush, but Obama wants to push it further, calling for increased collaboration between high schools, colleges, industries, and states.
"It seems very clear that when you give young people an opportunity like at Wooddale High School to engage in this kind of learning, it turns something on," James Stone, director of the National Research Center for Career & Technical Education, tells me. "I truly believe this, even though I can't point to empirical evidence that's research based."
But it's hard to say definitively whether CTE courses are the key to increasing STEM enrollments in America, Stone says. That's because CTE students are a self-selecting group -- meaning that there may be some inherent quality that makes students like Carter and Hooker seek out such programs and succeed in them. But for those kids whose passion is already ignited, he says, these offerings are propellant.
There is, however, evidence that suggests technical education programs benefit students when they enter the workforce. A 15-year-long national study of high school students from 1990 to 2005 found that the more CTE credits students took in high school, the more likely they were to be employed later on. Eighty-five percent of graduates who took four or more occupational credits in high school were working full time eight years later, compared to 76 percent of their peers who took no such coursework. Additionally, a 2008 study from the think tank MDRC found that students randomly assigned to career academies (CTE programs with small class sizes and industry partnerships) earned $2,088 more a year than who hadn't enrolled.
There is one troubling caveat: When broken down by gender, this data skews toward males. Girls who took more CTE credits earned less than their peers who did not take any. But this is probably indicative of larger gender discrimination against women in the blue-collar workforce.
Another key component to increasing science proficiency in the United States is hands-on training, which CTE programs greatly encourage. Students who received hand-on instruction nearly every day scored, on average, 155 (out of 300) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Those who never interacted physically with the subject matter scored 140.
The trick to getting kids interested in STEM, Stone says, is to give them access to a whole variety of activities early on, hoping one will spark their interest. "Giving kids exposure to this at an early age can have a powerful effect in getting them to think about different ways of what their future might be," he says. And without such opportunities, "we're just turning kids off in droves." The challenge is then, is how districts with limited funding can show kids these limitless opportunities at an early age.
Where school districts lack funds, corporations have millions available -- and have been stepping in to fund programs in public schools. These collaborations are proposed in the Education Department's plan, but this largely occurs already. For example, the Aerospace Industries Association sponsors the rocketry competition, and their member organizations take advantage of the opportunity to set up information booths at the event, touting internship programs and possible careers in engineering and aviation.
"We've got a workforce that's aging and we need employees," Marion C. Blakey, the president and CEO of the Aerospace Industries Association, tells me. In all, she says, AIA member organizations spend $150 million in community outreach a year.
Jeffery Holmes, the boys' aviation teacher and mentor, often partners with FedEx on internships and fieldtrips, which he says are enormously helpful for his students. "We couldn't do it without them, without corporate sponsorship and people volunteering their time," he says.
For students who develop a singular passion, a straight line connecting education to the workforce makes sense. Hooker, for example, is slated to join FedEx as a paid intern while he earns his A&P aircraft mechanic's license at a community college. Once that is complete, he will attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautic University and has been told FedEx will foot the bill. Carter will attend Middle Tennessee State University, focusing specifically on aircraft control.
"We are an outlier in the world in terms of not providing young the opportunities to begin pathways to their future selves," says Stone, referring to American education. "We defer that decision, like the phrase 'kicking the can down the road.'"
Hooker and Carter, then, are outliers of the outlier. And in talking to them, one fact becomes obvious: the most promising young people are always going to make the best of whatever situation, school district, or neighborhood they have.
I asked them what they thought might attract more students -- their friends and peers -- to the sciences. So much of the discourse in education treats students as test scores, but I wanted to get a sense of what holds Memphis students back. They told me, as is the case in a lot of high schools, it's just not cool to be the smart kids. Anecdotally, it appears, school culture can hold kids back farther than the right programs can propel them.
"The thing about Memphis is that there are a lot of people who are afraid to show who they really are because of what peers may think," Hooker says. "Us coming in freshman year, we got a lot of ridicule."
"A lot of people have dreams too," Carter adds. "Like I remember in 9th grade, I heard a lot people say they wanted to be a lot of different things, and I was really surprised. But through those years, a lot of people changed. They thought about being a cool person instead of being a smart person and they really let that go."
Their unflashy confidence is reflected in the design of their rocket. Other teams' crafts are painted in bright neon colors or decorated with cartoon decals. The Memphis team's rocket has no such decoration; Hooker and Carter did not want to add additional weight to their carefully calibrated machine.
Their rocket is next to fly, and the announcer asks the crowd to be vigilant and stand clear.
"Three, two, one... launch!" -- and the rocket goes off in a promising flash. But something is amiss.
It ascends in a spiraling corkscrew, not the intended graceful arc, diminishing the rocket's final altitude to 600 feet. Furthermore, on landing, their eggs breaks, disqualifying them from continuing on to the next round.
Although disappointment hangs on their faces, Hooker and Carter are well versed in science and know that failure is just an opportunity to learn. "The center of gravity may have been off on it to give it that spiral," Hooker says. "It's not the end, there's still a lot of work to be done, a lot of knowledge to be passed on, but this is capping it off for us seniors."
They have a lot to be proud of, if only inspiring some faith in the Memphis school system. Larry Rice, a Memphis divorce lawyer, personally handed the boys a $3,000 check when he heard they didn't have the money to compete. "I wanted to encourage those guys' great work, and I wanted to encourage other people who would see that those guys' great work got reinforced and rewarded," Rice says of the donation. "Lighting that spark separates another student from somebody that excels."
Two of the Wooddale team's junior members were at the launch, mostly watching. But they both told me that they want to return to the competition, and that Carter and Hooker are their role models. In all, the boys raised more than $10,000, some of which will go to fund the aviation program at the school. And the day after the competition, they'll graduate from Wooddale at the top of their class.
"Everyone wants to be the athletes, the jocks, the ones who are the class clowns," Carter says, "And now that we're at that point where it's time to step out on our own, it's time for college, everybody's kind of realizing that we're the top of the class."
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