BELLINGHAM, Wash.-- What started as experiments with soda bottles has grown into a big competition -- and an even bigger rocket -- for students at Northwest Indian College on the Lummi Indian Reservation.

A class of students is competing in NASA's University Student Launch Initiative, in which students from about 30 universities throughout the country design, build and launch reusable rockets.

The competition will take place over three days in April in Alabama, and NASA officials visited the students Thursday, March 10, to check the progress with their nearly 8-foot-tall rocket.

They're doing a great job. I'm very impressed, especially with them being a first-year entry, said Chuck Pierce of NASA. They're doing very well. I'd put them toward the top of the groups we've seen.

The students started getting involved with rockets when they worked on creating small, water-powered ones out of soda bottles at what they referred to as the Northwest Indian College Space Center. The name stuck.

It just kept getting bigger, and our little joke turned into something incredibly serious and fun, said Gary Brandt, who teaches the competition class. It's unreal. I pinch myself almost daily.

Northwest Indian College will be competing against big-name schools such as M.I.T., Penn State and Purdue, with the goal of launching its rocket 1 mile into the air. But those big names don't intimidate the students.

It feels really good, said student Justin Johnny. We have such limited stuff here, that we can compete against bigger colleges, I feel ahead of the game.

The launch project is in its 10th year, and it requires practice launches, reports, and design and safety reviews. For some students, it can be a gateway to a career at NASA.

We call it our pipeline; get them involved early, said NASA's Julie Clift. Get them in, get them hooked and get them a job.

Student Kyle Koos thinks of the launch more as applied learning.

I don't really think of it as a competition, I think of it as an opportunity to learn more, Koos said. You have to use your analytical skills. You have to get down to deep thinking on what has to be done. Everything has to be near perfect or else it goes kaput.

Koos added, My dad said, `You should be good with those rockets. It's just like shooting an arrow into the sky. Just imagine piercing a buffalo hide. '

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