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Rocket science: These Philly girls are off to the national finals in a top STEM competition

“They said, ‘Girls aren’t really into that,’” said Gianna Sposato, a member of the all-female Nazareth Academy Starchasers. “That made me want to do it more.”

The Nazareth Academy rocketry team launches a rocket. The all-female team is headed to the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge later this month.
The Nazareth Academy rocketry team launches a rocket. The all-female team is headed to the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge later this month.Read moreDAVE HERNANDEZ / Freelance

Gianna Sposato fell in love with rocketry at a summer camp before high school. Then some boys overheard her talking about her interest.

“They said, ‘Girls aren’t really into that,’” said Sposato, 14. “That made me want to do it more.”

Now, Sposato is headed to the finals of the American Rocketry Challenge, a member of the Nazareth Academy Starchasers — one of the country’s top rocketry teams, an all-female squad vying for scholarship money and the chance to compete at the world championships in London.

On Sunday, Sposato and three of her teammates gathered on a field in Mullica Hill, at the South Jersey Technical Park at Rowan University, which allows the team from the private girls’ Catholic high school to practice. (Securing a permit to launch rockets in Philadelphia, where the school is located, is difficult.) Two weeks ahead of the finals in Virginia, they were intent on getting as many rockets up in the sky as possible.

Teams are charged with designing, building and launching model rockets carrying two raw eggs 835 feet in the air. Their rockets are expected to stay aloft for 41 and 44 seconds, then return to the ground with the egg intact. The Starchasers have been practicing all year, when it was so cold that their fingers could hardly bend and when it was so windy that the rockets blew sideways.

Their Sunday launches happened in near-perfect conditions: blue sky, little wind, warming temperatures. The team was confident, then buoyant as most of their rockets sailed heavenward with impressive precision. Fears of eggs cracking or parachutes not unfurling — both mean automatic disqualifications in competition — eased as launch after launch sailed smoothly.

“This is a pivotal day for data collection, ladies,” said Greg Severino, director of the Nazareth Academy Innovation Center and the Starchasers’ adviser, a teacher with an easy rapport with his team. Severino consults, discusses, and answers questions, but the students run the show.

Shortly before 9 a.m., Nicole Rozanski, a senior and team captain, worked with Brielle Heron, a 16-year-old junior, prepping their rocket — Air One (its name a play on airone, Heron’s last name in Italian) — carefully, checking wind speed with an anemometer, scanning the sky for planes. A table full of igniters, engines, altimeters, foam, wadding, nose cones and other necessities sat at the ready.

“Skies are clear,” Severino said. “Launch in five, four, three, two, one!”

Rozanski and Heron were aiming for 860 feet; their first rocket sailed 871 feet, landing in a perfect 40 seconds.

“Very proud of you!” Severino shouted. “That was only 11 feet off your mark!”

Not everything happened perfectly; one engine failed, and one launch fell far short of its desired altitude, but those were all good data points for the team to learn from. At the finals day, it will just be the team — Severino isn’t allowed on the field.

“It really is a NASA operation in that sense,” said Severino. “But they’ve been trained to think on the spot, to fix things and get the job done.”

Nazareth’s rocketry program dates to 2017; its teams have made it to the finals every year of a competition. The team has won flight awards in the past, and finished 19th in the country last year, but have their eyes on a top 10 finish this year. The young women are more confident than they’ve ever been, Severino said, more skilled.

The team of 21 — five of whom qualified for finals — laser-cut their own rocket fins, 3D print their own nose caps and couplings. Simulators help them predict how things will work before they get out on the field.

On Sunday, the team made notes, logging wind speed and altitude achieved. Remember to add baby powder to the field kit, they reminded themselves.

“I just feel like this should be a little less tight; I should sand it,” Rozanski said, checking one of the rockets before a launch. Severino went to retrieve some sandpaper from the team’s gear.

Freshman Emily Dodson is already set on an engineering career; Heron has her eyes on the aerospace industry. Rozanski, who’s headed to the University of the Sciences to study physical therapy, wowed colleges in part based on her rocketry experience — she was asked to start rocketry teams at nearly every college she applied to.

Her mother, Michelle Rozanski, marvels at what rocketry has given her daughter, in confidence and skills.

“These girls don’t realize how amazing this is,” Michelle Rozanski said.

Still, both the students and Severino are quite cognizant of the underrepresentation of women in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and the stereotypes the students must work against.

“They are motivated to knock down barriers,” Severino said. “This is not a male science, it’s a science for humanity.”