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."