How do you get from Virginia to Paris? For one team of young rocketeers, the way across the Atlantic will involve a homemade model rocket, a chicken egg and some serious competition.

On May 14, several hundred seventh- to 12th-graders from around the country will descend on The Plains, Va., for the finals of the 2011 Team America Rocketry Challenge (TARC). The 100 student teams that have qualified for the TARC finals will compete for $60,000 in scholarship money as well as a trip to France to attend the Paris Air Show and compete against teams from Europe.

The criteria for a winning launch are simple—design and build a rocket that can fly up to an altitude of 228.6 meters, then parachute back to Earth within 40 to 45 seconds after launching. The team that gets closest to the target altitude, as measured by an onboard altimeter, wins. There is one added complication, however: the rocket must carry an extremely fragile payload—an uncooked egg—and return it to the ground unscathed. A cracked shell is grounds for disqualification.

The teams qualified for the finals by flying a similar rocket mission in front of an impartial observer. TARC organizers scored those qualifying flights and invited the top teams to attend the fly-off in Virginia.

The event, now in its ninth year, is expected to draw 550 students from 34 states, says Anne Ward, who manages the TARC competition for the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), which along with the National Association of Rocketry is one of the Challenge's primary sponsors.

Four of this year's teams hail from Presidio, Texas, a town of a few thousand people on the U.S.–Mexico border. Despite language barriers and economic hardships, the rocketry program has caught on there in a big way. Presidio High School sent teams to the finals in 2009 and 2010, breaking into the top 10 last year. "Coming from a tiny town like Presidio, we are from the edge of the Earth," says Shella Condino, a science teacher who leads the school's rocketry program. "And we were able to put Presidio on the map in the field of rocketry. So we're very proud."

At Presidio, rocketry has proved a tremendous gateway to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math—STEM for short. "In the beginning they didn't know what they wanted to do," Condino says of some of her students. "Now they know they want to be an engineer or they want to have a career in STEM."

For Presidio students, model rocketry is already leading to bigger things. The school is a two-time participant in NASA's Student Launch Initiative, a program in which students, with the space agency's support, build much larger rockets that fly to altitudes of 1.6 kilometers. "My students don't just launch model rockets anymore—they fly 10-footers, 12-footers, they do research. It's amazing," Condino says. "Now they're called rocket scientists."

Drawing more students into rocketry and STEM is just what TARC was designed to do. The U.S. is simply not keeping up with the rest of the world when it comes to science and math education. Compared with their international peers, American students score below average on tests of scientific and mathematical literacy. And the percentage of U.S. college students who pursue majors in the sciences is far lower than in many Asian and European countries.

That is a concern for the AIA, an Arlington, Va., organization representing hundreds of aerospace and defense companies. "The aerospace industry workforce is getting older," Ward says. "We think it's really important for kids to study science, math and technology—the STEM field. Getting kids involved in these fields is the best way to make sure that the aerospace industry stays healthy."

Some of this year's TARC participants will be out of college and entering the workforce as early as 2015. As Ward notes, these could be the engineers who design and build the successor to the space shuttle, which is nearing retirement. For now, although the TARC competition is serious, youthful levity abounds. "You'll see knee-high rainbow socks, fairy wings, Star Wars stuff, everything you can think of," Ward says.

For the Presidio High School rocketeers, the TARC competition is becoming a perennial highlight of the school year. But this time Condino brings her teams east with mixed emotions. The competition will provide an opportunity to honor Presidio's principal, Robert Coffman, who died May 11. "We're going to fly our rockets, and one of them is nicknamed 'Bo,' because that was his nickname," she says.