STEM students put their skills to the test during rocketry experiments

As part of a unique learning opportunity, students traveled to the Nevada desert to launch rockets they built in the classroom.


What combination of engineering, physics and chemistry skills are required to build a rocket that travels faster than the speed of sound? This is what Seattle Central students aimed to discover during a recent field trip to the Black Rock Desert in Nevada where they launched rockets they built over the last several months.

“This experience has been really empowering both personally and academically. It was cool to connect with students from different disciplines over our common interest in rocketry.  We had a lot of freedom to experiment,” said aspiring astronautical engineering student Shanika Davis.

This was the first year that Seattle Central students were invited to join their peers from the UW on an annual expedition to the Nevada desert. Over several months, students worked as teams at UW to design and build elaborate, multi-stage rockets, one of which ultimately exceeded Mach 2, over twice the speed of sound. Along with breaking the sound barrier, students also researched and tested their design for a rocket with a cluster of multiple motors.

“It’s one thing to see concepts in the coursework, but it’s another to see how a set of ideas can be applied to something that will actual fly and then follow through on construction, getting it airborne, collecting the information and ultimately presenting it to others,” said geology instructor Mike Harrell, one of the Rocketry Program’s faculty coordinators, along with physics and math instructor Rebecca Hartzler.

Seattle Central’s Rocketry program was established in 2014 and has over 30 active students. Students majoring in science, engineering or mathematics can join at any point in their academic career. The program is funded through a grant from NASA obtained by the Washington NASA Space Grant Consortium at the University of Washington.  The program is also supported through Seattle Central’s Ready! Set! Transfer! program funded through a grant from the National Science Foundation.

After launching at Black Rock, Seattle Central students presented their projects at this year’s annual UW Undergraduate Research Symposium.  They will also present at the Washington NASA Space Grant reception this fall.