Aiming High by Reaching Out

Zeb Nicholson is a math teacher and Project Lead the Way instructor at Cedar Falls High School, in addition to overseeing the Rocket Club.

A person works on a model that appears to be a red rocket

Originally Posted on: March 16th, 2015

by Shianne Gruss

The IIHR Wind Tunnel Annex welcomed a different crowd recently, as the Cedar Falls High School Rocket Club collaborated with University of Iowa graduate students and staff to test a rocket for the upcoming Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC), the world’s largest student rocket contest. Cedar Falls is one of just three Iowa high schools participating in the competition, which attracts more than 5,000 students from across the nation each year.

“It’s actually very rare to find rocket clubs in Iowa,” Project Lead the Way instructor Zeb Nicholson says. “The clubs are more concentrated in fairer-weather states, where outdoor testing can be done virtually year-round.” Iowa City and North Mahaska high schools also have rocket clubs. The Cedar Falls club is in its first year.

Nicholson, a longtime rocket enthusiast, leads a group of six students of all grade levels. They are in the qualifying stages of TARC, which is sponsored by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry. The results of their final test flights must be submitted by March 31 to be considered for the next round. Out of 700 nationally-submitted rockets, 400–500 have successful launches, and only 100 teams move on to the finals in Washington, D.C., in May.

The challenge? Launch a rocket exactly 800 feet in 46–49 seconds, with a successful landing and an unscathed Grade-A hen’s egg on board. With more than $60,000 and a trip to the International Rocketry Challenge at the Paris Air Show on the line, the club is pulling out all the stops—including a weekend trip to the wind tunnel.

The rocket must be designed perfectly to abide by the Team America Rocketry Challenge rules.

The rocket must be designed perfectly to abide by the Team America Rocketry Challenge rules.

The design process took some time. “We started building about a month ago, but started designing about three months ago,” says senior Tyler Sorenson.

Junior Jason Rathjen says they have been able to put to use lessons learned in STEM courses. “We get to apply some of those things that you’d never think you’d get to use in real life. It’s just really fun to see how it actually works together to build this really cool product.”

Nicholson says being able to test the rocket in the wind tunnel helped them avoid unnecessary test launches and costs; one engine costs about $20 and is only good for one flight. The wind tunnel allowed them to gather specific numbers to plug into RockSim, a rocket-specific software package the team uses in the classroom. Rathjen says the data will help them pinpoint what kind of engine they need and any tweaks they need to make to the rocket.


The Cedar Falls High School Rocket Club tests their rocket in the IIHR wind tunnel.
Left to right: Tyler Sorenson, senior; Tad Ritter, parent; Ryan Ritter, freshman; Jason Rathjen, junior; and Zeb Nicholson, PLTW instructor

Since the club is in its first year, it has been challenging to raise support. Nicholson, who jokes about local grocery stores supporting them with plastic-bags-turned-parachutes, says raising money for a $6,000 desktop wind tunnel was out of the question. “Plus the experience at the University of Iowa is better than sitting in our classroom,” he adds.

When they’re not in the classroom, the club is shooting off rockets from the University of Northern Iowa soccer fields. While they may not have a lot of financial support, friends and family gather to watch the show. “It’s really quite a spectacle,” says Tad Ritter, a rocket club parent.

Win or lose the students—and their teacher—are passionate about rockets. Sorenson even says he’s “addicted” to rockets. “Any time I have a moment to sit on the couch, I usually go out and build a rocket.”