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All-women rocket team boosts female engineering

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TONEY, Ala. (AP) — Kathy Steele has been turning boys' heads for years . . . with her brains.

Long before she became a member of the University of Alabama all-girls rocket team, she was launching model rockets with her father from their Prattville home. By sixth grade, she was showing her rocket knowledge at the school science fair.

"All the boys were like, 'You know how to shoot rockets. Wow!," Steele said at Sunday's 12th Annual Student Launch Initiative, the culmination of an eight-month rocket competition managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Nowadays, it's even girls on competing college rocket teams that are just as impressed with an all-girls team, she said, as they regularly approach Steele or teammates and tell them the guys on their team often don't let them touch the rockets.

"(Space exploration) is our future . . . to get more girls involved, it's really cool to see how far we have comes since the beginning of the space age," said Steele, a senior psychology major with a minor in mechanical engineering.

Dr. John Baker, an Alabama engineering professor, started the Rocket Girls team three years ago with the intent that it be an all-girls team. It was a bold move, said Steele, because all the girls on the team represent about half their entire numbers in engineering at the Tuscaloosa campus.

While changing attitudes is a big part of what Rocket Girls are about, they also have seized the chance to expand their learning in a competitive field and make their own careers more marketable.

Shelby Cochran, team project manager from Albertville, said she received an internship offer from Science & Engineering Services in Huntsville during their week competing at the Student Launch Initiative. She credited her experience with the Rocket Girls for creating the opportunity.

Overall results for the competition won't be revealed till mid-May, but the team is confident it will finish strong again. It came in sixth place in just its second attempt last year out of about 50 teams. In 2011, the Rocket Girls won the Education Engagement Award by reaching what was then a record 3,000 students.

The scientific goal this year was to learn the wind-drag effects from grid fins. Already used on rockets such as the MOAB (Massive Ordinance Air Blast) and tested on the Orion Launch Abort Vehicle, grid fins direct rocket flight with adjustments to the waffle-like pattern.

The Rocket Girls' research included at least five hours a week in the wind tunnel, said Cochran, a junior majoring in aerospace engineering, and six test flights with smaller scale models.

The primary flight goal during the competition is to fly to an exact height of one mile. The Rocket Girls' eight-foot rocket reached 4,971feet, which came 309 feet short of the goal. Alabama A&M University won the Altitude Award this year after reaching 5,269 feet.

It was closest the Rocket Girls have come to a mile in three years at SLI, and all other aspects of their flight, such as deployment of its pink parachute, went perfectly.

While there are still attitudes that rocket science is a mostly a man's field, Cochran said there are advantages to being an all-girls team. Primarily, it gets them more recognition, which in turn makes it easier to get sponsors as well as give them more opportunities to speak to students.

In regards to education, the Rockets girls aim to share their project with 2,000 K-12 students this year, including 500 highly impressionable middle schoolers. The goal is intentionally down from the 8,000 they reached last year, Cochran said, because they wanted more hands-on activities and one-on-one chances to engage young students

Whether or not the team wins the overall competition, Cochran said the team feels their ultimate goal is encouraging more women to pursue science and engineering fields.

"We just want to show what our university can do and show what we can do, that we don't need guys to do it," she said.

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