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The Ultimate Guide to The American Rocketry Challenge + 10 Tips to Help You Win

You may have heard the phrase, “It’s not rocket science,” but what if now it was? Welcome to the American Rocketry Challenge, the world’s largest rocket content that has nearly 5,000 students across the country competing annually.


For those who wish for an opportunity to design and build their own rockets, this is the perfect opportunity to launch those ideas and even win prizes when your talent is recognized. If you are aiming for a career in STEM, in particular aerospace engineering, adding this contest to your resume is sure to aid in your application to top colleges and universities. Having hands-on project work and pursuing your passion in prestigious competitions are admirable qualities in a high school student, which you will exhibit if you participate in this competition and write about it in your college application.


If you’re interested but don’t know where to start, keep reading this article to learn more, including the 7 tips that we recommend will help you succeed.


Note: If you’d like to browse through a few other engineering competitions, you can check this blog out!


What is the American Rocketry Challenge?


Organized by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry, the American Rocketry Challenge has been encouraging students to compete in a team to have fun when designing their own rocket for over 20 years. Throughout the past decade, the contest has received many distinguished accolades, such as the National Aviation Hall of Fame's Spirit of Flight award in 2020. The other competition opportunity lies in marketing, which judges the team with the best video based on Strength of Message, Creativity, and Editing and Technical Skills. For more information, please review the rules and the rubric.


As the largest rocket contest, the Challenge has many sponsors, which include big names such as RTX, Boeing, GE Aviation, and more. They also have government partners, which are the U.S. Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and NASA.


However, the competition doesn’t solely focus on rocket design and launching. Students may also compete in the Presentation and Marketing Competition. The Presentation Competition pushes students to explain how their teams designed the rocket, and they’re graded on a rubric for explanation, teamwork, rocket science, flight testing, lessons learned, and presentation quality.


Is the American Rocketry Challenge prestigious?


Yes, the competition is prestigious. Hundreds of teams enter the Challenge annually, and only the top 100 of them can make it to the National Finals. The competition boasts an extensive history and has connections with many top firms and government agencies in the A&D industry.


When is the American Rocketry Challenge? How can I register?


The following list breaks down the competition's timeline and explains the relevant events. All of these events will close on their specified deadline date at 11:59 EST.


June 1, 2023: Registration opens - The registration link can be found here. Be sure to review the rules for the competition here.


December 1, 2023: Registration & STEM Innovation Grant Applications close - The STEM Innovation Grant Application aims to increase STEM opportunities for students across the country by providing grants to Title I schools that are in need of funding to launch their own rocketry program.


April 8, 2024: Qualification flights due - Because of the volume of applications the contest receives annually, the qualification flights are needed in order to determine the top 100 teams that will move to the final fly-off. For details on what qualifies, please review the official rules and qualification flight form.


April 17, 2023: National flights (Top 100) announced.


May 18, 2023: 2024 National Finals fly-off - The event will take place in Great Meadow in The Plains, VA, about 50 miles west of Washington, DC. If there is rain, the event will be rescheduled to Sunday, May 19, 2024.


How does scoring work?


If your team qualifies after the qualification flights stage, the scoring for the main competition, namely the Nationals Fly-off, will be judged based on following the rules and designing a well-made, functional rocket. The rules guidebook lists all the details, from safety, team-building, rocket requirements, and such, so it’s imperative to read it carefully.


What do the winners of the American Rocketry Challenge receive as prizes?


There are many opportunities to win awards on the American Rocketry Challenge. Among the most notable is the 1st place prize for the National Finals, which is $20,000 for the team and $1,000 for the school. There is also the Best First Time Finalist prize, valued at $2,500 for the team and $500 for the school, so don’t feel daunted if you and your team are new to the competition.


Tips and resources to help you prepare for the PhysicsBowl:


Now that you have a solid understanding of the American Rocketry Challenge and its format, it’s time to go into how you can spend some time preparing for the competition. Here are 7 tips that can help you perform well, and even win the competition!


1. Find a good team.


Because the American Rocketry Challenge is a team-based competition, you need to find at least 3 students and a maximum of 10 students (including yourself). You have a lot of options – the members can include anyone from grades 6 and 12 in a U.S. school or home school. You don’t need to gather members from only your school or organization.


What you need to emphasize in gathering this team is engagement. To succeed, the entire team needs to come together in order to design, build, and launch the rocket, especially since none of these activities can be done by any non-member, adult, or company. Therefore, the dream team will include people with passion for doing their best and looking for hands-on experience.


2. Find a good mentor.


If your school or organization already has or knows an experienced mentor, great! Then you don’t need to worry about this step. However, if not, then you should find one so your team can ask them questions and get guidance for the process.


A mentor may be different from a teacher or other adult that will be your team’s official representative who will be responsible for submitting your online registration, paying fees, and such. Instead, a NAR-approved mentor will know about the contest and provide good advice, such as leading you to buy materials from a certain site and pointing out major flaws in a rocket design. You should use the NAR Map Location site to find if there are any mentors in your area or contact them online.


3. Look for sponsorships.


Supplies, motors, launch pads, and other materials will have to come at a cost, and even if you have a team and mentor, you need a sponsor or sponsors that can help in raising the funds needed to make the rocket.


There are multiple ways you can raise funding for the team. A good first step is to ask your school administrator if the school or an affiliated organization if your team could receive a budget – something within the $1000 range would be sufficient. You may also want to start a fundraiser campaign and see if family or friends can spare some money. If there is an aerospace or engineering-oriented company in your town, you may also get a connection there and ask if they’d be interested in sponsoring the team.


This tip will vary heavily from team to team, as different locations will have different people and environments, but keep a vigilant eye on what sponsorship sources are available.


4. Start early and be consistent.


The qualifying flights are due in early April, but it will take a lot of time to get there. Even gathering passionate members and finding mentors and sponsors can take a significant amount of time, but the team will also need to design, build, and launch a functioning rocket.


The best way is a consistent way. Set expectations right off the bat, implement a supportive team environment, and establish a weekly meeting time and date. Make sure to have goals for each meeting so you can track progress, and you don’t want the deadline to catch up to you too soon. If you find that you need more time, then feel free to meet more than once a week until you reach the desired goal.


5. Use online resources.


In an age where you can virtually learn any kind of information on the Internet, your team should definitely use online websites to fill in any knowledge gaps. The resources section of the American Rocket Challenge website has a list of pages for students to reference in referring to rules, guidelines, and more. There is also the Rocketry Forum, which not only has many topics and areas to explore but also allows the community to ask and answer questions. You may also turn to social media sites, like Facebook and Reddit, to find people with experience or advice. For a team that may be new to the competition, it’s crucial that you take advantage of any resources available.


6. Use simulations.


It’s resource intensive to continuously fly your rocket for testing, so it’s helpful to use simulation software. Although it may not be 100% accurate in predicting real-life flights, it’s enough to make sure that your rocket is functioning smoothly. For example, if the simulation states that the rocket prototype misses the needed altitude by a large margin, the team should investigate what they should fix and improve.


According to the vendors page, the Challenge lists some simulation software programs that teams can use, which are namely Rocksim and SpaceCAD.


7. Practice, practice, and practice.


There are so many things that can go awry with your rocket, and many of these errors can be unpredictable. To reduce the chance of a malfunction on the day of the launch, your team should develop a prototype early and test it as much as possible. While simulations are useful, your team should become familiar with the act of launching a rocket and checking to see all the components are in order.


It’s highly likely that the team’s first few designs will not work, and that’s okay. If you can get multiple successful flights before the qualifying flights deadline, you’ll be in a solid place.


Final Thoughts


No matter what, don’t forget to have fun while making your rocket. Although it’s a competition, the organizers emphasize that they want all their participants to discover and maintain the joy of creating, and no matter the result, the act of designing, building, and launching a rocket is no easy task for young students.


If you're looking for a real-world internship that can help boost your resume while applying to college, we recommend Ladder Internships!


Ladder Internships is a selective program equipping students with virtual internship experiences at startups and nonprofits around the world! 


The startups range across a variety of industries, and each student can select which field they would most love to deep dive into. This is also a great opportunity for students to explore areas they think they might be interested in, and better understand professional career opportunities in those areas.


The startups are based all across the world, with the majority being in the United States, Asia and then Europe and the UK. 


The fields include technology, machine learning and AI, finance, environmental science and sustainability, business and marketing, healthcare and medicine, media and journalism and more.


You can explore all the options here on their application form. As part of their internship, each student will work on a real-world project that is of genuine need to the startup they are working with, and present their work at the end of their internship. In addition to working closely with their manager from the startup, each intern will also work with a Ladder Coach throughout their internship - the Ladder Coach serves as a second mentor and a sounding board, guiding you through the internship and helping you navigate the startup environment. 


Cost: $1490 (Financial Aid Available)

Location:  Remote! You can work from anywhere in the world.

Application deadline: April 16 and May 14

Program dates: 8 weeks, June to August

Eligibility: Students who can work for 10-20 hours/week, for 8-12 weeks. Open to high school students, undergraduates and gap year students!


Additionally, you can also work on independent research in AI, through Veritas AI's Fellowship Program!


Veritas AI focuses on providing high school students who are passionate about the field of AI a suitable environment to explore their interests. The programs include collaborative learning, project development, and 1-on-1 mentorship. 


These programs are designed and run by Harvard graduate students and alumni and you can expect a great, fulfilling educational experience. Students are expected to have a basic understanding of Python or are recommended to complete the AI scholars program before pursuing the fellowship. 


The AI Fellowship program will have students pursue their own independent AI research project.


Students work on their own individual research projects over a period of 12-15 weeks and can opt to combine AI with any other field of interest. In the past, students have worked on research papers in the field of AI & medicine, AI & finance, AI & environmental science, AI & education, and more! You can find examples of previous projects here


Location: Virtual

Cost

  • $1,790 for the 10-week AI Scholars program

  • $4,900 for the 12-15 week AI Fellowship 

  • $4,700 for both

  • Need-based financial aid is available. You can apply here

Application deadline: On a rolling basis. Applications for fall cohort have closed September 3, 2023. 

Program dates: Various according to the cohort

Program selectivity: Moderately selective

Eligibility: Ambitious high school students located anywhere in the world. AI Fellowship applicants should either have completed the AI Scholars program or exhibit past experience with AI concepts or Python.

Application Requirements: Online application form, answers to a few questions pertaining to the students background & coding experience, math courses, and areas of interest. 


One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program


If you are interested in doing university-level research in physics, aerospace engineering, or mechanical engineering then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.


Lydia is currently a junior at Harvard University, studying Molecular and Cellular Biology. In high school, she was the captain of her high school’s Academic Decathlon team and attended the Governor's School of Engineering and Technology. In her spare time, she likes to create digital art while listening to music.


Image Source: American Rocketry Challenge logo

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