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World's Largest Rocket Contest Launches STEM Careers

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In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama urged recognition for science fair winners in the same way Americans recognize Super Bowl champions. But with opinion polls showing that students would rather clean their rooms than spend an hour with their geometry textbooks, the subjects of science, technology, engineering and mathematics are facing a serious image problem.

That's why the Aerospace Industries Association is deeply invested in the world's largest student rocket contest, the Team America Rocketry Challenge. TARC, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, engages students in hands-on science and engineering in a fun and competitive environment. We and our partners hope to spark a life-long interest in aeronautics and other STEM-related fields, inspiring the industry's future aerospace engineers.

Starting each September, teams of three to 10 students in middle and high school work together throughout the school year to design, build and launch a model rocket with the help of a teacher mentor, using flight simulations and actual engineering methods. This year's challenge is considered to be the most rigorous in the competition's history: flights must reach 800 feet during a 43- to 47-second duration, and the payload -- two raw eggs -- needs to return to the ground by parachute undamaged.

Each year's participants produce a crop of inspirational stories, and 2012 is no different. TARC students from Presidio, Texas, a remote town on the Mexican border, attended this year's White House Science Fair where President Obama lauded their tenacity and creativity in raising enough money to compete. Two seniors from Wooddale High School in inner city Memphis, Tenn., were teased as freshmen for their interest in rocketry, but are now praised as "fly boys" as they pursue their private pilot licenses.

Nearly 700 teams representing 48 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands submitted qualifying scores in this year's competition. The top 100 teams are advancing to the national finals outside Washington, D.C., on Saturday, May 12, to compete for $60,000 in scholarships, the opportunity to travel to London days before the 2012 Summer Olympic Games to compete at the Farnborough International Air Show and an invitation to participate in NASA's Student Launch Initiative, an advanced rocketry competition.

Created in 2003, TARC has evolved into a workforce development initiative, attracting diverse talent to our industry's pipeline. It's a collaborative effort between AIA and the National Association of Rocketry, with support from NASA, the U.S. Department of Defense, the American Association of Physics Teachers and more than 30 AIA member companies. The contest is critical to the U.S. aerospace industry. Our workforce is going gray -- almost 60 percent of aerospace workers were age 45 or older in 2007 and will be eligible for retirement over the course of the next decade.

Currently there are not enough young people studying STEM subjects, which would put them on the path to enter the industry and ensure that the United States continues to be the world's leader in aerospace.

TARC is striving to reverse that momentum. More than 60,000 students have entered the competition since its inception. In a 2010 survey of TARC alumni, four out of five respondents said TARC has had a positive impact on their course of study, while 92 percent of participants said they would encourage a friend to pursue STEM-related careers. In igniting a new-found passion for science and engineering, we're hopeful our rocketeers will be on a great career-long trajectory and still be willing to clean their rooms!