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Not Your Ordinary Science Fair


We're going to switch gears now and tell you about a competition that is really about to take off - pun intended. We're talking about the nation's largest rocketry tournament, the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

If you think that making a model rocket is kids' stuff, listen to this: Teams must build a rocket that can fly as close to 800 feet as possible in about 45 seconds. The rockets have to carry two raw eggs into the air and bring them back safely. The top-ranked teams will compete in the national competition on May 11th.

With us today is Darius Hooker, who you might remember was on our program last year. He participated in the competition last year from Wooddale High School. That's in Memphis, Tennessee. He's with us from our member station WKNO in Memphis.

Darius, welcome back to the program.

DARIUS HOOKER: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Also joining us is Isabella Leighton. She is a freshman at the Engineering and Technologies Academy at Roosevelt High School in San Antonio, Texas. Last year, her junior high school team came in second place in the competition. Isabella is now taking part this year as a high school student, and she's with us from our member station KSTX in San Antonio.

Isabella, thank you so much for joining us.

ISABELLA LEIGHTON: Hi. Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: And congratulations to you both. Now, Darius, I understand that you recently participated in the annual White House Science Fair. We even have documentary evidence. We have a picture of you and the president. What did you do there, and how was it?

HOOKER: It was pretty nice. They gave us a call up and invited us back to the White House to explain what was going on with the competition and everything we did last year. And we actually got a chance to meet the president and talk to him just like we talked to everybody else, but it was an honor to be able to talk to the commander-in-chief about our competition.

MARTIN: Tell us again how you got into building rockets.

HOOKER: Me and my partner were always involved in aerospace and aviation, but our 10th grade year, we were presented with a program at our high school. And they asked us: Could we get a team together to compete in this contest? So, 10th grade, we took a crash course in rocketry and physics. And in 10th grade, we didn't do so well in the competition. Eleventh grade, we got really close. In 12th grade, we actually made it to nationals. So, from there, it just kind of sparked our interest in rocketry and everything aerospace.

MARTIN: Isabella, what about you? How did you get interested in this?

LEIGHTON: Well, it actually happened when I was in my elementary school in my fifth-grade year. The magnet program, KSAT, came to my elementary school, and they talked about some of the projects that they had done, told us about the rocketry and showed us a few rockets. And that kind of sparked my interest because, previously, I had only thought, oh, NASA builds rockets. You know, that's cool. But I had never thought that that would be something I could actually be doing at my own, you know, younger age.

MARTIN: What is it about rockets, Isabella, that intrigued you? Can you describe it?

LEIGHTON: Well, not particularly because it's just kind of like a feeling of excitement and everything. You know, I get to do something that a lot of people usually won't. I get to do something that's not so normal and it's fun and exciting and, you know, the feeling that I get when the rocket actually goes off the launch pad is, like, some of the happiest moments I've probably lived.

MARTIN: Isabella, I hope you don't mind my asking this, but there's been a lot of discussion around getting more girls interested in the so-called stem field science, technology, engineering and math. A lot of people wonder, you know, why is it that, in other countries that are competitive in these fields, you know, girls are doing well. Women are present in these fields, but in this country, it seems like we're having kind of trouble with that. And I just wondered if you could speak to that. I mean, is it a kind of thing where - are girls somehow sort of given the feeling that they're not supposed to be interested in these things? Has anybody ever made fun of you for being interested in these kinds of things?

LEIGHTON: Particularly me, no. But one of my other teammates said that, once we were at the actual competition last year, before we launched, that there was an all guys team that was, like, telling her, oh, well, you know, we won last year and we did great. And, like, they were kind of intimidating her and many people believe that this is, like, primarily a male field, so women are often discouraged or made fun of when they do that. And even though, myself personally, I have not experienced that, I've heard a few stories from people who say that they have.

MARTIN: Darius, you would never do anything like that. Would you?

HOOKER: Never.

MARTIN: Of course, you would not. But...

HOOKER: Of course not.

MARTIN: I want to say, though, that you and your partner have also had the experience of people - well, you know, not always feeling that you were the most welcome in this field and I want to mention once again that people are also concerned about there being enough people of color in this field, as well, for the U.S. to remain competitive in the stem areas. And, Darius, you and your partner are both African-American. I just wondered if you would tell us whether you ever got the message, kind of either overtly or inadvertently that maybe this isn't really for you. And how did you deal with that?

HOOKER: I've - not even just speaking on behalf of us being colored, but being in the field, it's always that sense of intimidation from guys who've had training as far back as early elementary, just like Isabella. They've been in the field since fifth grade, but we've always looked over that. We're on for the challenge. Anything anybody throw at us, we've taken it. We took ridicule from guys in school, girls in school. We've always been teased about things, so we always just had that tough barrier and nothing really got to us.

And, I mean, in the long run, it pays off to have a tough skin and not let what people say get to you.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Isabella Leighton and Darius Hooker. We're talking about the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

Darius, you're not competing this year, but Isabella is. I was just wondering if you had any advice for her since, obviously, some of these people are going to try to psych her out and her team. And since you've been through it, do you have any advice for her?

HOOKER: From what I've seen from Isabella and her team, they have their head on straight and, I mean, they have a few more years to compete. Just stick with it, network as much as possible. You have a lot more opportunities than the guys that probably will try to make fun of you guys, so just look over it and, in the end, it'll all pay off.

MARTIN: Darius, what's next for you? What are your plans?

HOOKER: Right now, I'm in school for - as a aircraft technician. I'm going to school to get my A&P license to better myself as a pilot, also better myself as a aircraft engineer. I'll be moving on to Amarillo to get my aircraft technician degree and also aerospace engineering, so I will be, hopefully, moving on to Boerner-Lockheed to design a aircraft one day.

MARTIN: What about you, Isabella? What's in your sights? What are you hoping to do?

LEIGHTON: Well, I'm hoping that, in the time that I have left right now in high school and competing and everything, that we can continue the rocketry club that we made at our high school and hopefully encourage more people to join, especially girls since that's something that people really want in the field, because, you know, we've seen a lot of girls that we know have a lot of potential, but because they're discouraged. So, hopefully, with all the things that we've done, we'll, like, encourage them to also join our club and join up in the stem fields.

MARTIN: Well, you're a freshman, Isabella, so I think you have time to kind of make that happen. I know you sound like you're a woman in a hurry. You're a girl on a mission. So, Isabella, you got to go to the White House, too. Right?


MARTIN: Yeah. How was it?

LEIGHTON: It was a lot of fun. It was really exciting because, like, even my teacher - he was really excited, saying stuff like, oh, my gosh, no one's ever gone from our school before. No one has ever gone from San Antonio to do this. You guys are, like, really cool.

MARTIN: Well, you are. You are. That's exciting. What does it mean to - before we let you go, I just - I'm curious about whether this kind of high level attention makes a difference. Does it make a difference in the work that you're doing? It seems that both of you are very interested in this work, anyway, and you would be pursuing this, anyway. But does it matter when people like the president take notice, when people outside of your field take notice of what you're doing, Darius?

HOOKER: Yes, ma'am, because, like I was telling my teacher a few days ago, right before he called me and told me about the D.C. trip, a couple of days earlier, I actually thought about the competition and everything that took place last year and I was like, well, a whole year has passed. They probably forgot about us. We was last year's news. But it just goes to show that, even when you don't think so, people are paying attention to everything that you're doing, so your best work is done when you don't even know it. So I just tell people to keep pressing on and you never know who's paying attention to you.

MARTIN: Isabella, what about you? Does it make a difference to have people outside of your field notice, even to get invited to the White House?

LEIGHTON: Well, it kind of does because, even though it's really nice to do something for yourself and you know, as a team, oh, my gosh, we did this together. We got so far. It's cool and everything, but it's always nice when someone is recognizing all the efforts that you put into the things that you do. I really like the fact that, you know, the White House has, like, recognized us as girls who have gone far and really tried to pursue the stem careers and everything, so it encourages us even more to continue what we're doing.

MARTIN: Can you tell us about your rocket or is it a state secret?

LEIGHTON: No. The rocket's really simple, actually. It doesn't include a lot of science, in my opinion, anyway, but then again, you know, I've been doing this for years now. It's a simple, two foot rocket, really, built with tubes that will hold the eggs that we have to fly.

MARTIN: OK. Well, I'll take your word for it. That was Isabella Leighton and Darius Hooker. They were talking to us about the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

Thank you both so much for joining us. Keep us posted on everything you're doing.

HOOKER: Thank you.

LEIGHTON: Thank you for inviting us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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