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Life Is Like a Rocket Launch
A woman holds a tall model rocket and wears a t-shirt with words It’s Not Rocket Science (oh wait, yes it is)

Shella Condino is the driving force in teaching her students to shoot for the stars. Image Credit: NASA

It's no secret that launching a rocket takes dedication and a lot of persistence. It can also be amazingly hard work, even under the best of circumstances. But when your circumstances aren't the best, imagine how much more difficult something so technologically complex can be. For students in the small West Texas town of Presidio, there's a lot more to a rocket launch than just lighting the fuse and watching it lift off. These rocketry students face difficulties that many other clubs do not.

For over 90 percent of the students in Presidio, which is a border town with Mexico, English is their second language. And they've had to learn not just the words used in everyday life but also an entire field of technical terms that many English-speaking students might find difficult.

Unlike most rocketry clubs, economic hardship presents an additional challenge for students in Presidio. The median income is less than $20,000 per family. With an approximate population of 5,000 people located 250 miles from the nearest city, students are limited in technical resources and knowledge-based assistance. So not only has purchasing the necessary rocketry equipment been difficult, but getting hands-on experience has been a challenge.

Given these disadvantages, one would not expect to find a nationally recognized student rocketry club in such a place, but that's where teacher Shella Condino has made a huge impact. Condino, a physics and chemistry teacher from the Philippines, has immersed herself and her students in projects that help them expand their horizons beyond their tiny community. She eventually became involved in various NASA education projects, including rocketry and, later on, robotics. The challenges were difficult. Condino herself did not speak Spanish, and many of her students were still learning English. She says that their initial attempts at working together included a lot of learning and some creative methods of communication. Despite the difficult issues they faced, she has propelled her students beyond their town and into the national arena.

Through NASA's various education projects such as the Student Launch Projects, the Team America Rocketry Challenge, and the Middle and High School Aerospace Scholars programs, Condino's students have been able to work and collaborate with NASA engineers and scientists. Their rockets have consistently placed well in contests across the country, and as a result they have become a well-respected rocketry team.

The work was not easy, according to Condino, especially given the technical language required in both spoken and written formats. The students had to write about their rockets and payload, and also had to exhibit their work, give presentations, and answer questions from a NASA review board. While the task was sometimes daunting, Condino says, it ended up helping improve their English skills. The students also had to learn to manage their time wisely and to work together as a team.

President Obama talks with three girls while standing in front of a rocketry display

While in Washington, D.C., three students from Presidio, Texas, met with President Obama. Image Credit: Shella Condino

Condino says of the experience, "Our students' participation in the NASA Student Launch Projects advanced rocketry program gave them opportunities of a lifetime! Not everybody gets the chance to work and collaborate with NASA engineers and scientists."

NASA has been supportive of Condino's work in a number of ways. Her teams have won grant money for their rocketry work, and her robotics club members have been awarded scholarships to help assist with the competitions' registration fees. NASA also has provided Condino with education resources and curriculum support materials for her day-to-day classroom. The students have been mentored by and collaborated one-on-one with NASA engineers and scientists; Condino herself has been able to take advantage of some of NASA's professional development training.

The competitions weren't always easy to attend, despite the grant money provided by various sources. Other teachers, the students and people in the community donated time and effort to help raise funds for the clubs. They held bake sales, sold donuts and other foods, and even held goat auctions.

By participating in the competitions, Condino and her students have had the opportunity to leave their small town in West Texas and travel to many places, including NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., for the Student Launch Projects' culminating launch; The Plains, Va., for the TARC national finals; and to Washington, D.C., to present their student spaceflight experiments at the Smithsonian. And as if presenting at the Smithsonian weren't exciting enough, the story of award-winning students from the fourth poorest school district in Texas and a border town with Mexico caught the eyes and ears of the White House. So because of their inspirational story, they were invited to the White House and a meeting with President Obama.

Neil Armstrong and Shella Condino

Shella Condino had the opportunity to meet with first man on the moon Neil Armstrong before his passing in 2012. Image Credit: Shella Condino

Because of her hard work and proven dedication to the growth and development of her students, Shella Condino was named the 2011 Scott Crossfield National Aerospace Teacher of the Year, awarded by the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She also received one of the prestigious 2012 Discover "E" Educator Award from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Most recently, Condino was named an Aerospace Educator Award recipient by the Women in Aerospace.

Condino's dedication to her students has shown them that a whole world is available to them. Her students have applied for internships and scholarships, and almost all of them are pursuing STEM careers in college. She encourages teachers all over the country to try to take advantage of NASA's many opportunities. As she writes, “Teachers should rise to the challenge and go the extra mile. Taking part in any NASA activities is a great opportunity. It may sound intimidating, but people from NASA are very helpful and accommodating. All the activities are fun and challenging. We teachers must be great models to our students, provide them opportunities and guidance, and -- most importantly -- encourage them to work as hard and 'reach for the stars,' believing that there are no limits to what they can accomplish. As for Presidio and its students, the sky is no longer the limit!”

Related Resources:
› NASA Student Launch Initiative
› NASA Robotics Alliance   →
› NASA High School Aerospace Scholars
› Team America Rocketry Challenge   →
› Rocketry -- For Educators
› Robotics -- For Educators
Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services