These are the High Schools Preparing the Next Great Rocket Scientists.

Posted September 12, 2017 by Travis Pulver

Its not unusual to hear about a family moving long distances so their kid can play football or basketball for a better school. If they believe their kid has elite-level talent but might not catch the eye of college coaches because their current school isn't competitive, moving can make a significant impact. Families on the athletic track will stop at nothing to get their kids the best opportunities to play for the top colleges.

But what if your kids are more likely to be on the “academic” track than pursuing a career as a professional athlete? Far more of us are likely to have successful careers by gaining knowledge and skills in academics than we are in becoming the next Tom Brady or Kevin Durant. Parents might not regularly move across the country so their kid can attend a school with a better academic reputation, but its not uncommon for them to scout out school districts to see which ones are better than others. If your kid has a knack for science, technology, and math, going to a school with programs that foster and nurture that knowledge can mean a lot for their future. More and more families are even moving to different neighborhoods based primarily on the strength of their school districts!

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to judge the true strength of a school district based just on report cards and standardized test scores. How would it look if we evaluated Football or other sports this way? What we need is to be able to differentiate schools based on real performance in specific academic scenarios. If schools participate in nationwide academic competitions - just like they do in sports - it becomes a bit easier to understand where its academic strengths really lie. We decided to do this with one industry and see what information we could glean about the high schools and states at the top of their game helping to prepare our kids for successful college and career opportunities.


America’s Next Top Rocket Scientist.

The aerospace industry includes some of the brightest minds in the country and according to business insider, it has one of the highest median job salaries out there at $145,000. With over 68,000 jobs in the sector (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) your kids are much more likely to be successful at an aerospace career than professional sports.

So, our question is how can we determine which high schools, school districts, or even states are better for budding aerospace engineers? We can start by analyzing performance in national competitions like the Team America Rocketry Challenge. Our team at ICS spent a little time reviewing the past decade of Team America Rocketry Competition (TARC) performances to see if there were any trends that stood out.

Over the last decade only 24 states have had a team place in the top 10 spots at a TARC competition. Just 9 states have had 5 or more top 10 placements and only one state, Texas, has had more than 10 top 10 placements.

Team America Rocketry Challenge Top Performing States, Institute of Competition Sciences

This is not entirely unexpected. Many of the states with the most top 10 finishes have at least one of two things going for them, if not both. Either (a) they include a large aerospace hub in their state (i.e. Texas is home to NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Florida is home to Kennedy Space Center, and Alabama has Marshall Space Center), or (b) they are simply a more populous state with more schools competing (Texas is #2 in terms of population size, PA is #6, CA is #1).

What stands out even more when you consider these two factors are the states where neither of them exist. We then might attribute their strong standing in TARC even more to the exceptional performance of the schools and teachers themselves. Three states, Washington, Missouri, and Wisconsin fall into the category where they do not have strong aerospace sectors and don’t fall into the top 10 most populous states - WA is #13 most populous, MO is #18, and WI is #20 (Michigan straddles the edge of being in this category at #10 most populous).

Does this mean that the educators in Washington, Missouri, and Wisconsin are simply doing a better job teaching their students about aerospace and rocket science? Maybe. Maybe not. But it probably means that at the least, they’re doing more with less help from expert mentors in the industry. Should you flock to these states if you want your kids to become aerospace engineers? Probably not. Having the support of a strong industry sector nearby also plays a big role by providing more opportunities for students.


Exceptional Rocket Science High Schools

When we break it down to specific high schools, there are a few that stand out for having long-standing success in TARC competitions over the years. A total of 69 schools have made it into the top 10 placements over the last decade of TARC competitions. However, only 21 of them have had 2 or more repeat placements, and only 7 schools have had 3 or more top 10 placements.

Team America Rocketry Challenge top performing schools, Institute of Competition Sciences

The only school to have multiple first place finishes is Madison West High School (2009 and 2012). Plantation High School in Florida, and Madison West High School in Wisconsin tie with 5 overall top 10 finishes.


Becoming the Next Great Rocket Scientist.

So what does all of this mean if you want your kids to become the next great rocket scientist? Should you plan your move to a new state for a new school? Probably not. What may be the most important thing to take away from this brief analysis of Team America Rocketry Contest is not necessarily the specific schools finishing at the top of the ladder, or even the states with the most top 10 finishes. What matters most is to find a school that participates. You cannot learn to be the next great rocket scientist if you aren’t in the arena testing your skills.

According to the TARC website, more than 5,000 students participate in the competition each year. While this may sound like a large number, consider that there are 15.1 million high school students in public schools (according to the National Center for Education Statistics) in the United States.

So if you have kids interested in aerospace, NASA, or rocket science specifically, and you have some flexibility with which schools they attend, make sure to check in with them on if they participate in TARC and the other great academic competitions that can help your students get ahead. If they aren’t already participating, make sure they’d be willing to get a team started if your kid attends the school. Simply getting in the arena and letting your kids compete to test their skills is the most important thing you can do to help them get ahead in the college and careers of their choice! Don't let them miss out because their school isn't even in the game. 

Check out more information about TARC and other related competitions on the ICS Competitions Database.