In this era of sequestration, policymakers have been focused on cutting budgets and slashing programs, rather than making the investments that will help our next generation compete in the global economy. Meanwhile, U.S. students are being outpaced internationally in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), placing 25th in math and 17th in science, according to the OECD. Despite growing opportunities within STEM-related industries, very few of our nation's youth -- particularly women and minorities -- pursue STEM education and careers.
All students should have the chance to be inspired and access the potential career opportunities that await their generation. That's why, for the past 11 years, the Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC) competition has inspired the aspirations of bright young people to reach orbital velocity. Each year, middle and high school students from across the country work in small teams to design, build and launch model rockets. They work with mentors and their local communities to gain invaluable access to the software, tools and people who can help bring their ideas to life and show them what a career in aerospace and other STEM fields looks like.
Since 2002, TARC has inspired more than 55,000 youth to explore STEM through the excitement of rocketry - often surmounting economic, linguistic and cultural barriers to the nation's most coveted and lucrative occupations. This year, a record 725 teams from across 44 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands submitted qualifying scores. Now, the top 100 qualifiers will compete in the national finals outside Washington, D.C., on Saturday, May 11. They'll be competing for $60,000 in scholarships and an invitation to participate in NASA's prestigious Student Launch Initiative.
Regardless of where these students come from or their previous exposure to aerospace, TARC gives each of them a chance to unlock their imagination and put their creativity to practical and scientific use. We're proud to say that this year's competition is one of the most diverse yet, with a number of all-girls teams, rookie teams, teams from urban and rural America and even a team comprised entirely of Civil Air Patrol volunteers.
This year's challenge welcomes back some familiar faces, as well. Finalists include 2012's national runner-up from San Antonio -- an all-girls team hoping to win the title and prove to the nation that women in STEM are growing in numbers and here to stay. This is no small feat: while demand continues to grow, women's representation in our industry has stagnated over the past decade at just under 25 percent. Because of TARC, we're more hopeful than ever about the future of our aerospace and defense workforce.
While our education system and the industry continue to face challenges, programs like TARC help solidify our nation's role as the global leader in aerospace. This joint effort between AIA and the National Association of Rocketry, with support from dozens of AIA member companies, demonstrates what is possible through collaboration. More importantly, TARC unleashes the potential ignited when you inspire promising young minds to take their studies outside of the classroom and into the field for take-off.