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Students launch rockets, careers

By Doug Livingston
Beacon Journal education writer

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St. Vincent-St. Mary Rocket Team member Gerry Puhalla retrieves a rocket after landing in a field off Wilbur Rd. on Wednesday in Medina. (Phil Masturzo/Akron Beacon Journal)

Ryan Schweter, a sophomore at St. Vincent-St Mary, balances a 30-inch rocket on the side of his hand while his colleague, junior Katie Engels, marks the projectile’s center of gravity with a pencil. From a red pickup truck behind them, a Black Keys song fills the chilly December air as the dozen St. V-M students review schematics and toss around words like “ammonium pyrophosphate.”

“I want 150 grams out of that sucker and I want it moved down,” said Robert Engels, Katie’s father and a physics teacher at St. V-M.

Engels, the team’sadviser, makes a note of the unbalanced center of gravity from the excess weight in the tip of the rocket.

After a quick adjustment, the rocket whooshes through the air and takes an unexpected, and unplanned, turn to the south, landing in a tree.

“That’s not good,” said Katie Engels as she and the team began a search for the rocket’s remnants. Covered in mud about an hour later, the team examined the spent cartridge of a second, more successful, launch. Holding a charred cap in the palm of her hand, Katie Engels looked up and smiles.

“There’s nothing like the smell of rocket fuel in the morning,” she said, half-jokingly.

Getting high-level help

The 12 students represent the best of the high school’s NASA Student Launch Project. Over the past few months, they’ve worked with Timken engineers, a University of Akron professor and NASA scientists to design a rocket set to launch at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The launch is made possible by a top-20 finish out of more than 500 teams, some comprised of college students, who competed during the annual Team America Rocketry Challenge near Washington, D.C., last year.

The team met Wednesday afternoon at the end of a winding road that wrapped through a cornfield in Medina to test a half-scale, prototype rocket.

They haven’t mastered the rocket yet, which they hope will be working by spring.

“We’re going to find out,” Robert Engels said, looking forward to a February test launch of the full-scale rocket. “No one’s ever done this before.”

The final product, a 5-foot-6-inch cardboard cylinder powered by a solid fuel source, is expected to reach 5,600 feet in a matter of seconds. What’s “never been done before” is the planned deployment of a blimp and camera upon the rocket’s descent. To accomplish this, the team has filled a compressed gas canister used in paintball guns with helium. The gas will inflate a blimp, which the team hopes will be peppered with decals from sponsors.

Raising funds for trip

Students are still raising funds for the $6,000 trip to Alabama. In the meantime, the group has replaced the more expensive and heavier fiberglass and carbon fiber with cardboard and plywood to stretch the $3,700 project grant supplied by NASA.

UA professor Shiva Sastry helped the group write the grant proposal.

Ultimately, the project takes students out of the classroom and beyond the rural launch sites in Northeast Ohio. It takes them to the crossroads of education and industry.

“It’s the ability to promote engineering activity, which is the lifeblood of Timken in everything that we do,” said Mark Joki, a senior development specialist at Timken’s North Canton campus.

Every Thursday since early September, the students have traveled to Timken following their classes. They meet with four engineers to discuss different types of motors used to propel the rocket.

Timken’s pro bono consulting is similar to the service it provides for regular clients.

“I think it’s really neat that a company like Timken got into that program,” said Pete Paglia, the original advisor for St. V-M’s SLP program, which started 11 years ago.

Papa Pete starts program

The students cordially refer to Paglia as “Papa Pete.” As the founder of National Machine Group, an Stow company that supports northeast Ohio’s aerospace industry, the St. V-M graduate cultivated the SLP program at the high school before passing ownership of his company to his two sons, one of whom also graduated from St. V-M.

He brought the program to an area that, he said, lacked science and engineering opportunities for high school students. “This area, I felt, was deprived in going forward.”

Each year since Paglia partnered with NASA, at least a couple of St. V-M teams have advanced to the national stage at Demascus, Md. But the program’s most notable achievement has been its impact on propelling these young rocket scientists into STEM careers.

Each of the 12 students intends to major in either mechanical, electrical, computer, aeronautical or another form of engineering.

It’s been the plan all along for some of them.

“I’ve been planning this since the sixth grade,” said Stefan Subich, 17. “I’ve always been fascinated by planes.”

Quality fallback

For others, like Katie Engels, mechanical engineering is a “plan B.”

But her father wouldn’t be surprised if she eventually took up engineering. His oldest daughter, Joanna, flopped on her field of study. At 19 years old, she’s studying engineering at Clemson University.

“I would have never thought she would go into engineering,” Robert Engels said.

Some things have surprised him over his six years leading St. V-M’s rocket team — like shooting a rocket straight.

“How hard could it be?” he remembers thinking.

But he’s found that there is something to be said of life and rockets: “It’s not bad luck 99 percent of the time,” Robert Engels said. “Most of the time, it’s something you forgot to check.”

His wife reminds him that the students are still in high school.

“Most people think it’s a lot of luck,” Katie Engels said.

“It’s a lot of engineering,” her teammate Hannah Norris responded. “Trial and error”

Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com.