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UNCP Rocket Team Launches for Success

Student group
UNCP Rocket Team Members Caleb Locklear, Riley Edwards, Sydney Allen, Seth Lowery, Samuel Kauer, and Joseph Cimadamore pose for a First Nations Launch team photo. Credit: UNCP News

Students on the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) Rocket Team, a multi-year awardee of North Carolina Space Grant’s Team Experience and Competition Award, are making their mark in rocket launching competitions. For the first time, team members won prestigious awards at two events in one year: the First Nations Launch and the NASA Student Launch Challenge.

The University of Pembroke’s origins are rooted in the need to provide equitable education for American Indians. From 1939 to 1953, it was the only state-supported four-year college for Indians in the United States. Today, UNCP finds itself with a diverse population of students and majors, including a team whose drive to build rockets is off the charts.

Members of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) Rocket Team gain science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) experience by building projects — and launching their career interests. The group and its success have grown significantly in recent years.

UNCP students had earlier launch experience, but they formally organized a Rocket Team with Steven Singletary, the team advisor, when he submitted a proposal to North Carolina Space Grant in 2021. The initial five members recruited more students who had interest but they had not yet engaged in the design-build-fly process. Efforts have now grown to 18 members. 

“Being a part of the team has changed my life, as it has given me an exciting hands-on learning experience,” says Seth Lowry. “Being on the team has also given me opportunities to meet potential career prospects.”

Lowry, a junior in applied physics, previously served as the UNCP Rocket Team’s safety officer who ensures team members prioritize safety and follow the rules. This year, he is a payload section lead, so he will be monitoring the rocket’s research equipment and cameras. 

Students, rocket and field
UNCP Rocket Team Members Billy Ray Pait (left) Riley Edwards, Seth Lowery and Caleb Locklear show off their rocket launching skills. Credit: UNCP News

UNCP has one overall team but some members work on rocket-building requirements for the First Nations Launch, while others focus on the NASA Student Launch, which are both NASA-sanctioned rocketry competitions. The students include engineering, art and finance majors, as the group accepts all students who want to build and launch rockets.

The team’s education, communications and outreach activities also support both groups. Not only do they earn honors for their towering creations in national launching competitions, but they also gain a variety of career skills and connections, along with communications, education and outreach experiences. 

Over the years, the UNCP Rocket Team has received support from NC Space Grant through the Team Experience and Competition Grant Program. NC Space Grant funded the team in 2021-22 and 2022-23, to compete in NASA-sanctioned STEM competitions. NC Space Grant also has supported other students at the university to reach their STEM goals. In recent years, UNCP students received the STEM Pre-Service Teacher Education and MSI STEM Bridge Scholarships, including two this year. 

Sandy Canfield, NC Space Grant assistant director, notes that by funding campus teams, and providing scholarship opportunities, the state program supports NASA’s broader goal for an inclusive workforce.

“NASA and the nation need a diverse and skilled STEM workforce today and in the future,” Canfield says. “We connect students to NASA’s mission, work and people. We achieve that by engaging, inspiring and attracting future generations of explorers through a broad set of programs, projects, internship opportunities, activities and products.”

UNCP team members photograph their rocket before launching it. Credit: UNCP News

First Nations Launch Competition

The UNCP Rocket Team initially competed in the First Nations Launch about a decade ago, and they renewed that connection in 2021. In 2022, the team competed in the Mars Engineering Challenge, which had them successfully deploy a drone. Against four teams from the United States and Canada, they placed third overall and won the altitude and best oral presentation award.

NASA’s First Nations Launch is a high-power rocket-launching competition. It is put on by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, managed by NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and funded by the Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP). The competition is for students in Tribal Colleges or Universities, Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions, and members of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society collegiate chapter to design rockets and meet their altitude goals.

Continuing their success at the April 2023 competition in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the team placed third for written reports. Their honors also included an outreach award for their work in the community. For example, the outreach leader of the UNCP Rocket Team downloaded science education plans from NASA, and team members worked with local teachers to implement them in the classroom. 

During the year, they also carried out STEM-based pop-up activities from NASA lesson plans, such as their gravity demonstration and bubble rocket activity during the university’s trunk-or-treat for local children. 

Students and rocket
UNCP Rocket Team recovers their rocket after launching at the First Nations Launch Competition.

Those projects show not only the team members building their own STEM skills, but also helping the next generation become excited about science. Christine Bolz, First Nations Launch director, notes the importance of STEM advocacy for the future of team members. 

“The knowledge, skills and abilities students learn through this program are transferable to any career they may pursue, whether they strive to work in the aerospace industry, return to the reservation to help their community or explore other opportunities,” Bolz notes.

Students and computers
The UNCP Rocket Team members during a First Nations Launch team-building session. Credit: UNCP News

The team had even more honors. They also earned the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium 2023-24 NASA Artemis Student Challenge First Nations Launch Award for their competition performance. They also won the Next Step Award, which came with a $15,000 grant and an invitation to next year’s 2024 NASA Student Launch, one of the highest-level rocket launching competitions in the nation.

NASA Student Launch

Members of the UNCP Rocket Team also competed in the April 2023 NASA Student Launch Challenge in Huntsville, Alabama, and considered it to be an eye-opening experience. The team was successful in the liftoff division, meeting their altitude goal of 5,281 feet.

They learned a lot not only from the preparation, but also from the competition experience. “What I’ve enjoyed the most about the UNCP Rocket Team is being able to have an extra-curricular project,” says Lowry. “It is preparing me for my future as the team is organized similarly to a company. We all have a job title and with that title comes a special task.”

Rocket launching
The UNCP Rocket Team launches their rocket at the NASA Student Launch. Credit: UNCP Team

At the competition, the members also met and engaged with other larger rocket teams. Learning from and interacting with those students bolstered more creative solutions when the UNCP team faced challenges in assembling their rocket, Singletary notes. 

“It opened up their thinking,” says Singletary, the team’s advisor. “They moved outside the box. I think it made them more creative.” 

Team members
UNCP Rocket Team members for the NASA Student Launch pose for a team photo. Members are Jose “Ed” Hernandez (left) Sydney Allen, Billy Ray Pait and Xander Amores.

Over the Moon’

Looking back, Singletary sees the growth of the UNCP Rocket Team as a significant accomplishment. Without support from NC Space Grant, the team could only afford three team members to travel and participate in just one competition, he notes.

Thus, Singletary calls NC Space Grant a multiplier of teams. Instead of worrying about finances, the team could focus on building and launching rockets. 

“I come from a military background,” he says. “I would say that NC Space Grant is something the military calls a force multiplier. They are a ‘force’ in impacting student experiences.”

Canfield agrees.

“We hope that as more students engage with the team, more students around campus will hear about the positive experiences and will want to be involved too,” Canfield says. “Then those new members also will have a great time while building professional and technical skills. With the rich cultural demographics of Robeson and surrounding counties, NC Space Grant would like to see further engagement with the native and local communities and their members.” 

Continuing their successes, the UNCP Rocket Team will be competing again in both the 2024 First Nations Launch and NASA Student Launch Challenge. Singletary and the team members express that they are “over the moon” about the announcements. The team is determined to balance their workload for the competitions, meeting weekly to finish preliminary competition tasks.

Soaring toward the Future

Positive impacts are apparent for many team members, current and previous. 

For example, Caleb Locklear is a former UNCP Rocket Team captain and structures engineer. He is now a senior in engineering at NC State in the 3+2 Mechanical Engineering dual-degree program between UNCP and NC State. He recounts that his time at UNCP made him even more enthusiastic about his educational and career goals, especially as he nears completion of his degree. 

“As my time in the rocket team progressed, I found myself being able to understand what engineers have to go through,” Locklear notes. “I have been able to design, build, research, present and report on this fun process called rocketry. The best thing about this process is that, on every step, you have a team, an advisor and others who have your back as you advance in the competition.”

The UNCP Rocket Team shows off their team patches.

Connect with the UNCP Rocket Team! 

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