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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 Bill SasserCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2007



Fredericksburg, texas

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.

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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.

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."

***

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."

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