In this high school class, it is rocket science

Brett Williams has his students build a rocket each year as a hands-on way to learn science and engineering – and they've set flight records.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Brett Williams sits at his desk in a classroom in this town in the Texas Hill Country, surrounded by students immersed in a science project unlike any other in the nation. No simple chemical reactions in test tubes are involved. No demonstrations of Ohm's law.

Instead, one student is on the phone ordering a tank of nitrous oxide to help ignite a rocket engine. Another, sounding like an electro-mechanical engineer, is tracking down an electric-current converter. The night before, students stayed until 10 p.m. running complex calculations on flight dynamics and trajectories for a final check by ... NASA.

Welcome to Mr. Williams's "principles of technology" class – which seems like it should be held at the Kennedy Space Center instead of a cramped high school classroom in central Texas. The lesson plan for this day, and every day for the entire school year, is straightforward but not simple: build a rocket and launch it to the edge of space.

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On Friday, Williams and his 20 students at Fredericksburg High School are scheduled to do just that. They will travel to the US Army's White Sands Missile Test Range in New Mexico and launch two 22-foot-long, 450-pound rockets from the desert floor. The rockets will carry research payloads for Stanford and Purdue universities. If they reach their expected apogee of 100,000 feet – the lip of space 20 miles up – the launches will set a world altitude record for high school students. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the name of Purdue University.]

"What we're doing is unique, but I think almost any science teacher could teach this course," says Williams. "Students already have all of the scientific principles they need from their sixth- through 10th-grade education – density equations, Bernoulli's principle, Newtonian physics. They ask teachers, 'When will I ever use this?' I'm giving them a chance."

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Fredericksburg (pop. 10,500) sits in the rumpled hills west of Austin, a scenic place dating to the mid-19th century known for its cowboy roots and German immigrant culture. It seems like an unlikely springboard for the next generation of aerospace innovators. But over the past eight years, Williams's students have broken rocketry records, and dozens have gone on to careers in aerospace engineering.

His rocket-science curriculum is expanding to 25 Texas high schools next year, with help from a $250,000 state grant awarded to a nonprofit educational foundation he established in Fredericksburg. He envisions taking the program nationwide and has won impressive support from Texas lawmakers, aerospace executives, and National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials, who believe that such a curriculum could attract US high school students to careers in science and engineering.

According to the US Space Foundation, the number of students in the US earning degrees in science, engineering, and mathematics has been declining for the past 15 years.

Sitting in front of his computer and working two phones, Williams, who has a boyish shock of red hair and a bookish beard, brings a kinetic energy to whatever task is at hand, while constantly encouraging his students to solve problems on their own. "We've got three tanks of nitrous coming on Monday?" he asks one student talking on a cellphone to a supplier. "The right size?" Williams asks again, as two other students stand by with problems to solve. "Good job, that helps."

Williams does not use a textbook for the two-year curriculum he has developed, Suborbital Aeroscience Studies, which subdivides each class into project teams to accomplish specific tasks. "All the questions in class are focused on completing the project," he says. "As much as anything, students are being taught how to solve problems and do research on their own."

The problems at this level of rocket science are many. Just a week ago, components for one projectile scheduled for Friday's launch, Redbird 11, were scattered at suppliers and machine shops from Alabama to California. As they arrived, Williams and his students have been assembling the rocket in the hallway. A second rocket, Redbird 10, failed to launch during its first attempt two years ago, but is ready for a second try.

Five other Texas high schools are completing their first year of Williams's curriculum and recently came to Fredericksburg to join one of his classes for a day-long launch event. At a nearby Hill Country ranch, students assembled their rockets – six-footers carrying 1-pound payloads – and troubleshot problems. A crowd of spectators stood by, including such VIPs as members of the state board of education and state and federal lawmakers. Williams and the other teachers let the students answer questions about their successes and failures.

"They sound like NASA engineers," says Gerry Griffin, former director of NASA's Johnson Space Center. "These kids are doing it themselves – designing complex pieces of aerospace hardware that don't work right sometimes and learning lessons from it. What Brett Williams is doing is amazing."

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Williams himself has no degree in engineering. He majored in marine fisheries at Texas A&M University and spent eight years chasing redfish and dolphins in the Gulf of Mexico. Twelve years ago, he settled down with his family in Galveston as a high school drafting instructor.

A couple of years later, he was lured to Fredericksburg High School by a former principal, Mary Alice Dieke. "She was interested in my background in scientific research and wanted me to come and teach a principles of technology class," he says. "But they had no labs and no funding. I told her that as long as I could try it my way, I would do it."

Williams had flown model rockets with his son and realized it was a perfect hands-on project to teach basic principles of science and mathematics. In 1997, his first class built a rocket with spare parts donated by a model rocket company. Christened Redbird 1, it reached an altitude of one mile. The next year, Redbird 2 broke the sound barrier at 833.68 m.p.h. In 1999, students launched a 450-pound rocket using a hybrid motor they designed themselves.

His students are pursuing projects beyond rocket launches, doing innovative research into hybrid propulsion systems. The rocket motors they are designing use nonexplosive solid fuels, called fuel grains, that burn at high temperatures when combined with nitrous-oxide gas. NASA awarded Williams a five-year, $250,000 grant for the research, which could provide other high schools with safe, inexpensive propulsion systems for their own rocket-science programs.

"Roofing tar works pretty well," says senior Katie Harvey, one of the students working on the project, identifying a possible fuel grain. The teen researchers test their hybrid motors next to a cinder-block shed by the football field.

Ms. Harvey, who moved from Florida to Fredericksburg two years ago, recently spent two weeks preparing a PowerPoint presentation to update NASA officials on the team's research. "Nothing like this was offered at my old high school," says Harvey, who plans to study space physics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla. "You can apply what you're learning and actually use it."

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