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Rocketry team brings elation to St. Agnes Catholic School

At just around 200 students, St. Agnes Catholic School in Roeland Park is a small, close-knit community. So when something good happens there, it’s cause for a celebration — schoolwide.

Such was the case recently when the school’s rocketry club, known as the Avengers, found out that they were headed to Washington, D.C. as a finalist in the Team America Rocket Challenge — or TARC — which will take place Saturday.

The Avengers’ coach and St. Agnes science teacher, Gena Schleimer, said that when they heard the news, the student body and staff couldn’t contain their excitement.

“There was a mass eruption of screaming and all the kids came out of the classrooms,” Schleimer said. “In all my 20 years of teaching, I’ve never been a part of something as exciting as this. Everyone just flooded out into the hallway.”

The Avengers team, which is made up of seventh- and eighth-graders at St. Agnes, is only one of two teams in the state of Kansas and the only one from Johnson County headed to the finals in Washington, D.C.

Teams have to design, build and fly a rocket to an altitude of 850 feet. The rocket must take off and land within 44 to 46 seconds. But there’s a catch. Each rocket carries two raw eggs — which must remain uncracked when the rocket returns to the ground.

According to Schleimer, her team’s strategy revolves around keeping those eggs from cracking.

“It’s all about the padding to not break the eggs,” Schleimer said. “We got extremely creative with our padding, but we are not going to share our secret.”

Each year, more than 4,000 students from across the nation compete in TARC qualifying flights. Each team holds the qualifying flight on their own and must have it scored and certified by a representative from the National Association of Rocketry. The Avengers were lucky to find Kansas City-area resident Gary Cole to certify their qualifying flight and to serve as a mentor to the team.

The seventh- and eighth-grade team members were responsible for building their own rocket and using a computer software program to simulate its flight. The school started the TARC competition with two teams of 10 members, but only one team qualified for the national competition.

Every team member has a specific responsibility. St. Agnes seventh-grader Eli Ziglinski took the lead on building the Avengers’ rocket. He’s looking forward to seeing the rocket take flight at nationals.

“It’s a great opportunity for me having built most of the rocket to see it fly in Washington, D.C.,” Ziglinski said. “I will be really proud of myself and excited to display my work and the work of my peers.”

Eighth-grader Joe Nordling had an important job on the team as well. He was in charge of using the RockSim computer software program. His skills will be important to the success of the team’s rocket launch in Washington, D.C.

“Our rocket is downloaded on the computer, so if outside occurrences are on the field like wind or rain, I will put that into the computer and decide if we need to add or reduce weight,” Nordling said.

Only 100 teams are invited to the finals in Washington, D.C. to compete for scholarships. Teams that survive the first round of competition will then launch their rocket a second time. In the second round, the teams must fly their rockets to an altitude of 825 feet and it must take off and land within a 43-45 second timeframe.

TARC is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry along with more than 20 industry partners. The goal of TARC is to inspire middle and high school students to explore careers in STEM or science, technology, engineering and math.

Avengers team captain Catherine Eshelbrenner, an eighth-grader at St. Agnes, said she’s really proud of her team and all of the hard work they have put into making it to the TARC finals. She knows that teamwork has been key to her team’s success.

“I enjoy how we are all one big family even though we are in different grades,” Catherine said. “We are all having fun together.”

Sara Beane: beane913@gmail.com

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