October 1, 2012 9:42:40 AM
STARKVILLE -- The three girls were all concentrated on their individual tasks, tuning and tweaking, huddled around the pink, wooden catapult, but still trouble-shooting as they worked.
"Screw that washer on," one said.
"Come check this. We need to get the sling in," another barked.
"It's got to be the stress," Shelby Adair said, speaking about the most difficult part of the project.
Adair and teammates Walker Mattox and Abigail Arinder are sophomores at Starkville High School, and for the 11th year in a row, the 10th-grade World History class was given the opportunity to earn extra credit by building an operational catapult.
The girls were preparing for their fifth launch of the day.
After each launch, the critique begins anew.
"Like yesterday," Adair said, "It was exactly the way we wanted it to be. We were testing it last night, though, and the sling broke. So that was a little frustrating, but we went to fix it, and, of course, we messed up the prong."
"Speaking of the prong," Arinder interjected, pointing to a nail at the bottom of the catapult's arm.
Maddox and Adair whipped their heads to see. Luckily, they quickly discovered the rope that was supposed to wrap around the prong had simply fallen off.
Ty Adair, the girls' World History teacher and Shelby's father, explained how the prong on the bottom of the arm is essential to shaping the catapult's shot.
"If we were inside, and we bent it forward, we could depress the shot and miss the ceiling," he said.
In Adair's classes, if a student elects to take on the extra credit assignment, all the work must be finished outside of class, except for one instructional day, when parameters are laid out: the trebuchet catapult must be gravity-powered, with no springs or torsion, no more than 80 pounds, six-feet-tall and four-and-a-half-feet wide.
Ty Adair said he keeps coming back to the project because of its easy incorporation of science, technology, engineering and math with history.
"They only got one day of an engineering unit in class," Adair noted. "At the end though, it's so much fun to watch them solve problems in the same way that someone thousands of years ago would have."
Earlier in the day, about a dozen student teams held a competition. District Superintendent Lewis Holloway was on hand along with student peers, making the students perhaps just a bit more nervous.
Adair, Mattox and Arinder said they were confident with their machine, though.
But as they went to load the catapult, the 3-pound, 10-ounce weights the girls were using to power their catapult fell onto the trough, splintering and cracking it.
The trough is located near the bottom of the machine and is meant to guide the sling, an important piece that must be smooth and create as little friction as possible.
"They had basically destroyed their catapult as it was," Adair said. "With all the sharp pieces of wood, the pouch could easily catch and snap the arm."
Consolation? The weights had fallen directly on part of the trough the girls had reinforced, so the relative shape was still there.
Working quickly, Adair said she ran over to a nearby recycling bin and grabbed a piece of cardboard. The girls rigged the once piece of trash into place and loaded their catapult.
It worked, seamlessly, launching the ball more than 20 feet.
"It might have actually been smoother than the trough," Mattox said. "If the whole trough was as smooth as the rest of our back-up piece, it might have flown even further."
Trying dutifully to keep his fatherly biases out of the equation, Ty Adair was obviously proud of the girls' problem-solving, especially in such a pressured situation.
"I was proud of them for building it," he said. "But under pressure, they came through; they repaired it. It was like Apollo 13.
"It was a very simple solution, but they did it under 10 minutes."
Along with school, Mattox, Arinder and Adair are each in the middle of playing two sports, and with this project on the side, it would have been easy to give a half-hearted effort.
Maybe being an all girls-team, they felt like they had something to prove; maybe they are just that driven. Whatever the reason, the girls said they were happy with the work they had completed. Seeing their ball fly through the air made it all worthwhile.
"Of course when you are done with a class, you get a notebook with your grades and papers and stuff, but you can't launch a tennis ball out of them," Adair joked. "People didn't expect three little girls and the pink catapult to win.
"Well, we didn't win, but we got second."
There is probably a lesson in that, too.