Last fall, the first-ever Alka-Rocket Challenge took place, sponsored by the pharmaceutical company Bayer. In this competition, college students from across the country designed, built and launched Alka-rockets, or rockets made with film canisters and powered by the reaction between water and effervescent tablets, which creates carbon dioxide gas.
Alka-rockets are easy enough for even young children to build and experiment with, but the rockets that the competing college teams build go beyond a simple classroom experiment. The University of Minnesota team broke the Guinness World Record for highest Alka-rocket launch in the challenge's first year, reaching 430 feet (130 meters) with 100 crushed Alka-Seltzer tablets. This year, teams are looking to break the world record again and reach all-new heights. [Blastoff! How to See a Rocket Launch In Person This Summer]
Teams will launch their rockets at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 12, competing for glory, the title of world-record breaker and a $30,000 prize. Mae Jemison, a NASA astronaut and the first African-American woman in space, will be a judge in the challenge.
But the Alka-Rocket Challenge is more than just a fun rocketry competition, organizers said. Ray Kerins, Bayer's senior vice president of corporate affairs, told Space.com that the challenge is more of "an interesting way of reaching students, in this case college students, to try and drive more interest in STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education."
Through Bayer's program "Making Science Make Sense," in which the company's employees volunteer their time to help kids in school with fun science experiments, Bayer pledged to get 1 million kids involved in science by 2020, according to the program's website. With the addition of the Alka-Rocket Challenge, the company is "well beyond our target at this point," according to Kerins.
He also said that Bayer wants this science program and the rocket challenge to help increase diversity in STEM fields. Bayer also hopes that Jemison's presence as a judge in the competition will inspire children of all backgrounds to get involved in STEM, Kerins said.
It's not always an easy task to get kids, even college students, excited about science. But it's hard not to be intrigued by rockets shooting into the air with carbon dioxide bubbles. And besides the obvious cash prize motivating students, the competition brings the allure of breaking a Guinness World Record, something that really inspires the competing students, said Machlen Polfliet, the current captain of the University of Minnesota team, which won last year. Polfliet told Space.com that the experience of breaking a world record was "unreal."
Despite this success, Polfliet said he and his team hope to break the record yet again, and "hit the ground running" preparing for the 2018 launch.
This December, only one team will take home first prize, but many more will be inspired to work hard and get involved in science.