05/09/2013 04:12 pm ET | Updated Oct 01, 2013

How Rocketry Launched My Career in Engineering

Janice Gong

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series produced by HuffPost's Girls In STEM Mentorship Program. Join the community as we discuss issues affecting women in science, technology, engineering and math.

I built my first rocket in the first grade. It was almost as tall as me. I built it entirely myself. I could hardly contain my excitement. The moment waiting for lift-off, my adrenaline rushes, and sometimes I think my heart stops. And then the launch, when I can let out a breath of satisfaction as my work soars across the sky. From that moment on I built my career path around aerospace engineering.

In 2005, I stepped onto the field at the Team America Rocketry Challenge for the first time. I was in 7th grade. After a full year of working with my team of students and mentors, designing, testing and tweaking our rocket, we landed a third place finish - building a near perfect rocket and a lasting thrill that has maintained my enthusiasm over the years. So much so, that I competed throughout the rest of middle school and high-school. I went on to pursue a degree in Aerospace Engineering at the University of Michigan.

Rocket launch from 2011-2012 school year

My experiences in rocketry not only fueled my passion for engineering, but also taught me about the potential and possibility that comes in a career in aerospace - especially for women. Despite our growing presence in higher education and the workforce, women still hold less than 25 percent of all STEM-related jobs, with no growth in STEM employment since 2000.


In the Wind Tunnel at Michigan

I consider myself part of a generation of young women actively transforming those statistics. Much like those before me, I feel a strong responsibility in inspiring other students into STEM-field. At school I participate in the Michigan Aeronautical Science Association (MASA), which attends competitions like the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC).

TARC is a competition that requires teams of middle school and high school students to design, build, and test a rocket that conforms to goals set by the contest. Goals like reaching as close to a specified height as possible, carrying a raw egg safely and launch time requirements allow the students to gain experience with engineering problem solving.

This past year, my team has scaled up our competition goals. We went from launching a 9 ft rocket to building and testing at 13 ft rocket, we doubled our expected altitude from 1 to 2 miles, and we doubled the amount of active students in our student organization. We worked on incorporating both sides of aerospace engineering, astronautics and aeronautics (space and air) into our project this year by not only building a rocket but designing and building a small glider as well. This glider will be deployed from the rocket at 2 miles and will autonomously glide back down to the ground station. We will be launching our project at the end of June at the Intercollegiate Rocket Engineering Competition in Utah.


Me at our outreach event teaching students how to fold parachutes

Competitions like TARC as well as organizations, like MASA, can be a gamechanger, especially for students who are underrepresented in the STEM fields. They help students prepare for life beyond high school, and without it I wouldn't be where I am now. The world is more than textbook and rote algorithms, and to model that for students - to give them not only knowledge but something tangible and far-reaching - much like a rocket, can go a long way.

More of Janice's test videos and pictures can be seen here on this Facebook page.