Bernadette offered these remarks at the 8th annual Woman of the Year reception in June 2010.
Hello. My name is Bernadette Cannon, and I’m a member of Explorer Post 1010. I’d like to thank Jennifer Gayle and all the organizers of this event for giving me this opportunity to speak. I am a rising senior at Damascus High School in Damascus, Maryland. I am currently exploring my college choices, although I know, thanks to the Exploring program, that I want to be an engineer.
The Exploring program is a really great program that provides opportunities for kids my age around the country to explore various career paths. My Post is an engineering Post; its two concentrations are rocketry and robotics. There are about 70 high school students in the Post—about 50 in the robotics program and 20 in the rocketry program.
We meet during the school year, and both programs enter in an outside competition. This gives us a focus and a goal to work towards during the year. Because of our numbers, we have multiple teams entered in each contest; this year, both the rocketry and robotics programs each had four teams for the respective competitions.
The robotics program competes in regional botball tournaments and the global botball robotics educational competition. Botball is a program where teams build autonomous robots that navigate on small courses and move objects to score points. The robots can only be built with the items that come in given kits, and they have to work without input during the matches.
Strategy is very important because there are many different types of objects on the board and no robot can move every type, so what the robot will do must be decided on very carefully. For example, some objects are worth negative points, so a team could focus on making their robot move those into their opponent’s side.
The rocketry program—which I participate in—competes in the Team America rocketry challenge. Team America rocketry challenge, or TARC, is a national program that challenges middle and high school students to design, build, and launch a model rocket to a target height and recover an egg intact. Each year, the contest rules vary. This year, the target height was 825 feet and the flight had to last between 40 and 45 seconds. Teams received points for differing from the target height and time; the lower the score, the better.
This year’s contest also had another important rule: the part of the rocket that descends with the egg—the cargo unit—had to use streamers to slow its descent, not parachutes. Streamers do not slow a falling object nearly as effectively as parachutes do, so in many of our test flights, we disqualified, since the egg can’t land too far out of the target time period. Any flight lasting fewer than 35 seconds is disqualified, and with the streamers, having a safe but too-short flight is extremely easy. My team’s very first flight, for example, was 200 feet too low and 15 seconds too fast.
Participating in TARC has given me great real-life experience with problem solving. After every launch, we had to look at our data and see what we needed to improve. We wanted our rocket to work, and we wanted it to work well, so we had to keep redesigning features that were giving us problems. We were never done; there was always something to improve, even if it was our own skills instead of the design of the rocket. The first time I and the other new members assembled our motors, we were silent with concentration. We knew that if we messed up, the rocket would explode dramatically, and, not knowing really how the motor worked, we were nervous. Tentatively following the instructions and older members, it took me about a half-hour to assemble one motor. Not exactly efficiency. But at one of our later launches, I assembled a motor in ten minutes outside in the cold. Because of our practices, I had confidence that I could be precise.
Sometimes, when trying to improve our design, we didn’t know exactly what our ideas would do to the rocket, but we kept trying anyway. I learned how to problem-solve as part of a team with both the members of my individual team and all the rocketry members and mentors of the Post. We would build off each other and throw around ideas even if they weren’t exactly feasible, allowed, or wouldn’t have worked anyway. For example, we learned from our first launch that our rocket was underpowered and was falling too quickly. We moved to a stronger motor, but realized that our streamers were consistently tangling at ejection. We had to find some way to separate them because not only are tangled streamers ineffective, they can actually cause a disqualification if they form a loop, which would be too much like a parachute. At first, we didn’t know how to fix it, but with the advice of some older students and mentors including Mr. Ekman, we built a spacer to separate our streamers.
The process of working together led us to creative solutions. Our final rocket was significantly different from our first design: we had built a streamer spacer, used three instead of two streamers, and lengthened our cargo tube. Some of the other teams in the Post had even more design changes—such as building an entirely new rocket—because of the sometimes finicky nature of rocketry. Every motor has a small black powder charge called the ejection charge that splits the rocket in half so the streamers can come out. Sometimes, even if the charge doesn’t go off, the rocket can still survive if the ground is soft. One launch was held in melting snow, so when this happened to one of our teams, the rocket could have been okay. The problem was that there was a tree, a forest, actually. After walking over train tracks and through the woods, we finally found at the base of a tree the shattered remains of the rocket. The team was crushed, but they quickly rebuilt a new rocket, and actually had an unprecedented qualifying score of two: their time was perfect, and they were only two feet short of 825. Although the design of the rocket greatly affects the performance, luck definitely has something to do with it.
We learned to work with, if not really around, the unpredictability of the launches. Sometimes the wind would be in our favor and catch the streamers, giving our rockets time to descend. Other times, it would tangle the streamers and disqualify our flights. Or, since our first practice launches started in the winter, we had been working with cold, dense air. As the weather warmed up, our rockets started going higher because the air was less dense. We learned to make a best guess: so many extra grams to bring the apogee down so many feet. We use pennies to weigh down the rocket—pennies, not quarters or nickels, because if you lose the rocket, you’re only out about ten cents of pennies instead of two dollars of quarters.
It was hard to control the height because you almost never have the same atmospheric conditions twice, so we learned to make a decision and run with it.
I was inspired by the older members of the Post, who never got discouraged when things didn’t work out. The project takes dedication, but it’s so interesting and so much fun that I didn’t realize how important it had become to me until this winter, when I realized that the main reason I wanted it to stop snowing was that I wanted to be able to launch. Not only are the design and engineering interesting, but it’s really a great feeling to look at your rocket eight hundred feet up in the sky and know that you and your friends made that.
And it’s all because of the Exploring program. It’s a great introduction to science, technology, and engineering careers because it makes them fun. We always appreciate the help we get from our sponsors, both companies and individuals. If you are wishing that you could have done this—or something like it—when you were my age, consider sponsoring an Explorers Post, where you can participate by mentoring students and helping us grow and learn. The Exploring program is a wonderful opportunity for kids like me around the country. It gives us the ability to say, “Yes, actually, I am a rocket scientist.”
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