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Students ‘have a blast’ in rocket class

Alison Penn Photo Roswell High School teacher Stephen Lewis and some of his students stand behind the launchpad as one of the students’ rockets takes off. Lewis and 24 students had their first SystemsGo New Mexico launch on Sept. 28 and 53 Goddard High School Students launched their rockets on Sept. 19.

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High school students in the Roswell Independent School District finished their first six weeks of SystemsGo New Mexico and launched their rockets last month.

Fifty-three Goddard High School (GHS) students launched their rockets on Sept. 19 during an overcast morning at the Wool Bowl and 24 Roswell High School (RHS) students had their launch near the school’s tennis courts on Sept. 28 with blue skies and some wind. After the launch, some RHS students filmed the launch and they uploaded it to the teacher’s computer to watch the launch again for review purposes.

For the first year of SystemsGo in Roswell, Celena Miranda and Monica Rodriguez-Hudson are the GHS teachers and Stephen Lewis is the teacher at RHS.

SystemsGo New Mexico provides professional development for teachers to provide a hands-on rocketry and aeroscience class for students. As described by Superintendent Dr. Ann Lynn McIlroy, the students are given boxes of rocket parts and expected to build a rocket from scratch without instruction. After building three generations of rockets, McIlroy said the SystemsGo final exam will be held at the Woolworth Ranch in Jal in April and said it is “best final exam ever because it’s practical, it’s hands-on.”

McIlroy said she “loves” this program and it is “the most exciting thing” she has been a part of in education. She said the teachers act as facilitators and guides, while the students must critically think and learn by trial and error.

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Dave Wilden, executive director of Pecos Valley Regional Education Cooperative, said the program started in Texas in 1996 and has spread to New Mexico. The RISD school board approved to bring the program to Goddard and Roswell high schools in the spring. Wilden said McIlroy helped build the program from the ground up in Loving and immediately reached out to get it going in Roswell once she became superintendent. He said she raised money and “worked her tail off” to get it started.

“We have kids that are doing physics and calculus that have never been introduced to those topics, but because of the relevance of that learning, they can do it,” McIlroy said. “This is such an incredibly successful program — 65 percent of the students that have gone through SystemsGo, over 25 years in Texas, have become engineers and that’s what we want to promote. We want every kid to realize they have that potential.”


Teaching rocket science

Aside from teaching SystemsGo, Miranda is an engineering and computer science teacher at GHS and Lewis teaches physical science, computer science and biology at RHS. Both went through training for the first year of this program in RISD’s curriculum. Miranda explained the Robert H. Goddard Engineering Program — named after the father of modern rocket propulsion who lived in Roswell — includes Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) and SystemsGo, where students can be involved in both. Lewis said SystemsGo is offered as an elective at RHS.

For his class, Lewis said his students are “having a blast” because this type of learning is empowering.

Miranda said the students are “responding phenomenally” and grasping the information, especially when they struggle or are frustrated with the math behind it, but are able to realize the relevance by building the rockets. She said the class has allowed her to put the fun back into teaching and helps kids learn in different ways.

Calling the class a hands-on environment, Miranda said she provides a pathway for students to answer their own questions and she said she has noticed, once they figure the question out on their own, they are more inspired. Similarly, Lewis said watching his students figure out challenges on their own is showing better outcomes for success. Both teachers agreed it teaches students teamwork and allows them to use various skills.

“We want to make this available to anyone, not just the AP (Advanced Placement) kids and the science kids, but just regular kids off the street because everybody brings something to the table that’s unique,” Lewis said. “The science kids are good with science, but they might not necessarily be good with hands-on building. Each one contributes to the whole.”

Lewis said teaching this class has been a learning experience that is influencing how he teaches his other classes to let students pilot their own learning. In order to move away from the traditional PowerPoint and worksheet process, Lewis said he met with a SystemsGo instructor in Lovington and this instructor offered suggestions to have students present what they are learning in class.

“Failure is an option,” Lewis said. “It’s OK because that is how learning works. Kids are so used to ‘I have to have an A, I have to have an A — no matter what I have to have an A.’ Well it’s OK if you make a mistake because that way you are learning something — and so that’s kind of a cornerstone to what this program is all about.”

Lewis said he wants his students to know when they get out in the real world that “they’re going to fail, but that doesn’t mean they are a failure” and they will always have opportunities to learn.

“I’d never built a rocket before,” Miranda said, reflecting on training for this class. “(It’s) a lot of learning new, different things. You really are learning rocket science. You are becoming a rocket scientist in short.”

Miranda said the SystemsGo class has scheduled a visit to Goddard’s laboratory exhibit at the Roswell Museum and Art Center. She said she has been several times, but after going through the SystemsGo training, revisiting the same exhibit was enlightening for her.

“I think it’s actually starting to bring what we’ve always had in the front of our building home,” Miranda said for the class’ particular impact to GHS. “Now our kids are actually able to own a little bit more of what their name comes from.”


Learning to launch

Mary James and Finn Donato were among the first students to launch at GHS’ launch. James, 16, and Donato, 15, said they enjoyed learning math and building the rockets. James said she has taken a rocket class at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell and is considering going into nursing. She said the class is a good experience, a unique opportunity and worth the work.

“Over my launch, I’ve learned what not to do,” James said. “I didn’t put one of the rings around the engine and that let the engine slip and it caused my rocket to break in half.”

“Building a rocket with no instructions and just the parts had been a really interesting experience,” Donato said. “My rocket, the nose cone did not come off right and I found it, but nowhere near the rocket. I need to figure out what went wrong — that and why the string burned in half.”

Donato said SystemsGo was harder than other classes and he appreciated the challenge. Donato drew a frog on the fin of his rocket and said he plans on an art-centered career in the future.

Zachary Montez and Gabriel Aragon, both 17, said this was their first time participating in GHS’ MESA program and they definitely recommend the class to future students. Aragon said the hands-on learning makes it easier to learn. Aragon wants to go into automotive engineering and perhaps rockets. Montez is thinking about pursuing game art and design.

“There’s a lot of math that goes into it …” Montez said. “When we made the rockets, we did it from scratch. They didn’t tell us anything. We just got bits and pieces of it and we did it on our own.”

An RHS student, Josh Lucero said the class should be available to all the other schools because it teaches students how to move forward from mistakes, is freeing and stress relieving and allows for exploration of creativity.

“I honestly love it,” Lucero, 17, said. “It’s really fun and honestly, it doesn’t even feel like an actual class. It feels like, you know, just some sort of fun side project. I really enjoy all that we’re doing with it. Originally growing up, I was planning on doing something regarding space or some sort of science because I tend to know a pretty good amount of that stuff. Currently, right now I am planning on pursuing music.”

Joseph Garcia and Alejandro Lerma, both 16 and RHS students, said the class can be very frustrating but at the same time enjoyable.

Raul Rivas said the class began slow to start with, and some students dropped out in the beginning. Rivas said it is a “fun” experience and class. Rivas said he is thinking of going into the medical field and was glad he ended up in the SystemsGo class.

“If you’re dedicated enough to stay until the end, then you get to do all of this, and that is where the fun part comes in,” Rivas said as he gestured to his rocket.

City/RISD reporter Alison Penn can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or at reporter04@rdrnews.com.


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