Sunday, April 3, 2016

At season's end...

Jurassic TARC preps their final flight of the season (Click to enlarge).
Today saw the last of this year's TARC qualification flights at Pegasus field - tomorrow is the deadline for all scores at TARC HQ.  Pope John Paul II's Jurassic TARC and the Grissom High team each finished their 3 flights, making 9 Huntsville teams turning in scores. This is a already a win, whether any of them make it to Nationals or not, as any team producing 3 scores has demonstrated they have the right stuff. So we have 9 victors in this mentor's eyes - I am very pleased, especially with our two first year teams, Hope Christian Academy and Grissom. Job well done!

After I returned to my apartment, I did my usual reflection on the TARC season - what went right, what went wrong, and above all, what could I do better next year. Thinking is good, and I tend to do a lot of it when I am not feeling well. So here are my thoughts, spawned in the relative comfort of my recliner...

Not enough practice - the local teams qualified, but the scores were not great. Good, but not great. This is because the teams did not practice much, and you need a fair number of practice flights to tune the rocket. Lack of practice resulted in a lot of flights that were in the ballpark of the altitude and duration goals, but not close enough for get-me-in-the top-100 scores. Kids nowadays seem to have much more structured lives than I did - robotics, sports, band, etc. eat up a lot of their after school time. Other than an hour of after school band practice and my father's "Saturday of your rear is doing work around the house" once per month, I was free as a bird. Doesn't seem to be the case today, and TARC is very often a lower priority than the other stuff. Hence, few practices and so-so scores.

Design and other constraints imposed by teachers/mentors - many teams designed and built the rocket around the motor, rather trying to come up with the best bird capable of meeting the goals. This is caused in part by economics and supply; budgets are often tight, which makes using last year's leftover motors attractive. There is also a supply issue, as a team needs to bulk order motors early in the season, by December at the latest. If they don't, they cannot get them from the same batch (manufacturing run), and motors from different batches vary widely in performance. Even motors in the same batch vary somewhat, but this variability is smaller than that between those from different batches (no such thing as identical model rocket motors - a fact that some teams tend to ignore until they start flying).

I'm sad to say that I also feel that Geezer TARC has played a role in constraining team freedom of design. Geezer TARC was intended to give the mentors an idea of what challenges the teams would face in the coming season, but this has occasionally translated into pressure on the teams by mentors/teachers. If a Geezer TARC rocket does well on a F32 motor, then that motor may quickly be adopted by the local TARC community, even if there are other viable motor choices, and even before the teams have begun the design process. Body tubes may also be selected based on Geezer TARC models, leaving the teams with little more to do than choose a fin shape and nose cone. We started Geezer TARC to help advise the teams, not to create design constraints; hopefully, next year's teams will be more free in their rocket designs.

Lack of active mentors - on paper, Huntsville has a fair number of mentors. In practice, it's usually just me and Duane out there with the teams, which can be taxing. We love TARC, but we occasionally have something else that needs done, and it would be nice if there were more mentors who came out regularly with the teams. Not only would it encourage more practice, but it would also help catch mistakes early on, when there is time and resources to make corrections. It is not enough to recruit kids for TARC; you need to hang in with them through the season, flight by flight.

So what can I do better next year?

Help restructure the TARC class - HARA offers TARC classes to teams in the hour before the monthly meeting, but the topics covered are hopelessly out of sync with TARC realities. It does little good to talk parachutes in February, because the teams are already flying their rockets with parachutes they have selected back in November/December.

Help recruit more mentors - can never have too many.

Advertise TARC more - need to keep spreading the word.

And above all, I need to win Geezer TARC. Duane has held the crown long enough.

1 comment:

  1. I can agree with most of it except the part about the Geezer TARC winner :)