Bronx Science takes flight with rocketry club


Sometimes it is rocket science.

Six Bronx High School of Science students, who spend their free time launching rockets they taught themselves to build, recently landed in a national competition despite the lack of a sponsored school club.

Junior Daniel Shaw, senior Mansouer Doumbia and junior Joshua Cammerman are all leaders of the school’s aerospace club and have been friends for year. They decided to extend that interest to building rockets on their own.

Meanwhile, juniors Ray Shurdha and Parthiv Patel, members of the school’s robotics club, saw what their aerospace fellows were doing and decided to form a rocket club of their own.

Building rockets is a combination of hands-on construction and using software called Open Rocket to help complete the project.

As the old saying implies, it’s not easy.

“We’ll have a test and realize the rocket isn’t stable enough,” Shaw said. “We’ll shift the wings, shift the weight around, use a less powerful motor, it’s a lot of trial-and-error.”

The teams typically spend January through March building and flying their practice rockets and often work together, in launches and in thought, bouncing ideas off each another.

Since Patel and Shurdha’s group came after the others, they have the advantage of adopting what works from their classmates’ trials.

“We learned a lot of good ways and solutions to building things we incorporated into building our rocket,” Patel said.

Since the clubs are not school-sanctioned, they do not use any Bronx Science resources and have to fund everything themselves, which quickly became expensive.

“Earlier on in the season, we couldn’t reuse our rockets, so we were burning a lot of money and resources,” Patel said.

Rockets can be designed to break apart, leaving pieces to scatter for the team to clean up, this also means there are pieces they cannot reuse.

“Our first year, we didn’t go into it with any conventions about what’s normal to rocketry,” Shurdha said.

“Our rockets ended up being pretty good.”

Among the difficulties the groups face is having the space required to launch the rockets. New York City has strict regulations about where rockets can be launched, as destruction or abuse of property, greenery or littering and polluting are prohibited in city parks. These restrictions mean the teams have to travel to Staten Island, New Jersey, Connecticut or upstate New York to practice launching.

Shaw said most teams across the country have advisors through their schools who are heavily involved in the rocket-building process and they help teach and mentor the students, but without that kind of access, the two Bronx Science groups are self-taught. Collectively, they devoured books and handbooks before ever building anything, but the hard work paid off for the knowledge they gained.

Though they don’t have official support, the teams credit schoolwork with helping them in their endeavors.

While Shaw and Cammerman credited their studies in AP physics with helping them understand how the rockets work, Doumbia said his AP psychology helps him. He learned about functional fixedness in class and then realized he was exhibiting functional fixedness in the team’s trial-and-error attempts.

Functional fixedness, in layman’s terms, is when someone displays the inability to think outside of the box.

“At the end of the day, it’s not just a technical matter,” Doumbia said.

The nature of launching rockets inherently involves failure, as with any trial-and-error process. That’s where teamwork comes in especially handy.

“Everyone here is so invested. It’s not one person’s project,” Shaw said. “Everyone here is really passionate about it, so when someone fails, we’re all in it together to figure out what happened and how we can fix it so we can make it better next time.”

Shaw, Doumbia and Cammerman’s team recently launched a rocket and lost it in the nearby trees when it came down. They spent hours walking through the area hoping to retrieve their hard work but eventually had to give up.

The National Rocketry Challenge took place May 18 in Virginia, the two Bronx Science teams qualified among thousands of applicants, making their invitation alone a win for them. While they did not place as high as they might have wanted in the competition, the teams said failure is not in the cards for them.

“It’s all just minor setbacks in the grand scheme of getting to our goal,” Cammerman said.

Bronx Science students, rocket building, national competition, aerospace club, self-taught engineering, student teamwork, high school engineering, rocket club, New York rocket launch, STEM education.