Have a son or daughter fascinated by space travel? NASA has invited more than 350 student rocketeers from middle schools, high schools, colleges, and universities to take part in its 2009-2010 Student Launch Projects. The contest is designed to inspire students to channel their interests in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into careers critical to NASA's exploration and scientific discovery endeavors.

The contest challenges student teams to build rockets of their own design, complete with a working science payload, and launch them to an altitude of 1 mile. Beginning in the fall school term, each team will spend eight months designing, building, and field-testing their rocket – encountering the same challenges faced by professional rocket engineers. In addition, the students must create a unique on-board science experiment able to survive the mile-high flight, and produce test results after the vehicle parachutes back to earth.

The projects will conclude April 15 to 18, 2010, when the teams gather at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. There, NASA engineers will conduct a professional design review of the students’ rockets - similar to the design review taken for every NASA launch. Following the review is a two-day launch fest at Bragg Farms in Toney, Ala.

There are two levels to the contest. The Student Launch Initiative enables middle and high school students to participate in the contest for up to two years and awards grants to participating teams. For college and university students, the University Student Launch allows participating teams to seek funding from their state’s Space Grant Consortium. The university-level contest is sponsored by ATK Space Systems of Magna, Utah, which awards prizes ranging up to $5,000 to the first-place winner.

U.S. engineering education has come under fire by some industry critics for being more theoretical than practical. This NASA effort addresses the practical aspects of engineering education by challenging students to build a working rocket. More information on the middle and high school Student Launch initiative can be found here . To learn more about the University Student Launch initiative, go here .