A team of Ohio 4-H members recently soared to new heights.
To more than 800 feet above Earth, in fact. While carrying an egg and a parachute.
The team, which is based in Butler County’s West Chester Township and devotes itself to model rocketry, competed this year as a national finalist in The American Rocketry Challenge (TARC)—the first time the team had reached that level.
“We were very surprised and excited at the same time,” team member Ryan Cheng said about reaching the national competition, which took place June 12–13 at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton.
The Ohio 4-H team was one of 100 teams from across the United States, and one of seven teams from Ohio, to compete at the event, which followed a round of regional competitions.
And while the 4-H’ers’ first launch in the finals went well, Cheng said, landing within 5 feet of the target, their second launch “went completely wrong.” The team’s nearly yard-long black-and-pink rocket, called Black Jack, split in two during flight, and the egg that the rocket was carrying—required to be kept safe and unbroken—got shattered.
For that, the team unfortunately was disqualified. But Cheng said they plan to gain from the experience.
“We learned about the flaws in our design,” he said, and also mentioned possibly adding “a longer shock cord for precise recovery.”
“We hope to do better next year,” he said.
The team’s advisor, Shirley Lee of West Chester, said she’s enjoyed seeing the members overcoming challenges.
Once, she said, during a practice launch, they lost their rocket somewhere in a cornfield. They searched through the field for four hours with no luck. The next week, they got the broken pieces back from the farmer who worked the field.
It’s been “fun to see their teamwork and perseverance,” Lee said of the team, which she has advised since its start in 2018.
Cheng, who has been with the team since 2018 too, said he enjoys the hands-on experience—of designing and building rockets, of learning things such as operating the launch pad.
“I’m always open to ideas for aerodynamic designs, different rocketry materials and motors, Rock Sim analysis [a computer program for designing rockets and simulating their flight], and problem solving,” he said.
He’s been helped since joining the team by mentors from the National Association of Rocketry (NAR). His achievements include earning certification in the group’s Junior HPR (high power rocketry) Level 1 program, which an NAR web page says “is intended to provide a measure of the modeler's competence to avoid gross violations of good modeling practice and safe model operation.”
Cheng built Black Jack together with teammate Srikar Koduru, and they prepared for the TARC competition through more than 30 test launches.
“We redesigned five times, and we kept adjusting the weight to get to the target altitude. We used BT70 body tubes, elliptical design fins, a balsa cone, a 16-inch parachute, and some of our own 3D design rocket parts,” Cheng explained.
“We needed a FireFly altimeter, anemometer, F44-8W engines, epoxy, egg protection and wrappers, and Rock Sim software for simulations,” he continued. “We also built a second replica rocket for the national finals.”
On its regional qualifying flight in May, Black Jack went up 805 feet—higher than the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge—in 43.66 seconds.
“At first, we weren’t expecting much from the regional competition,” Cheng said. “We submitted our scores for all three flights and waited for the announcement.”
The announcement eventually came by email—they had made it to the top 100 teams and had qualified for the nationals.
The American Rocketry Challenge, according to its website, is the world’s largest rocket contest, with nearly 5,000 students from across the United States competing each year. One of its goals is to bring STEM opportunities—science, technology, engineering, and math—to more youth.
In fall, Cheng will be a high school senior at Butler Tech. He’s studying mechatronics there, which Wikipedia calls “an interdisciplinary branch of mechanical engineering that focuses on the integration of mechanical, electronic, and electrical engineering systems.”
Come spring, Cheng said, he’s looking forward to receiving both his Lakota District high school diploma and an associate of tech studies degree in electro-mechanical engineering. Then, he plans to pursue a degree in robotics and electro-mechanical engineering at Miami University.
4-H has helped him on that path, he said, by teaching him STEM skills and so much more.
“Being part of 4-H showed me how to work effectively as a team, to innovate, and to improve my communication skills,” Cheng said, noting that he now shares his rocketry experience at West Chester Boys and Girls Club summer STEM camps.
He also said he has grown his leadership skills by working with Cozetta Vessel, a member of the Ohio 4-H Foundation Board from Butler County, and that he recently completed the 4-H Take the Leap: A Year of Career Readiness workshop.
“The best thing about being part of 4-H is that we are always helping each other learn by working together, and to explore without conflict,” Cheng said.
“It’s a critical skill that can help anyone to achieve greater success.”