Today the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) held its 12th annual engineering competition during National Engineers Week. We were one of 14 junior high schools invited to participate. Each school brings a team of 5 students and 1 teacher, and NAVSEA assigns one of its engineers to assist us in building a rocket launcher.

Our task was to design the launch itself. Each school was given a box with materials to build from, and we were given a budget of one million dollars to purchase additional materials if needed. But we’d get bonus points if we stayed within this budget. Our “rocket” was a ping pong ball, so we had to build something to launch this ball at and into a target set 10 feet away.

We first built a sling-shot contraption using rubber bands and popsicle sticks, but we couldn’t figure out a good way to stabilize the unit. We then thought of making a catapult — figured if it was good in medieval times, then it ought to work here. Turned out our catapult worked great. We were given two one-minute test launches at the target, and we were very happy with our design because we came close to the target on most trials.

The kids did a wonderful job of collaborating, designing, and constructing our model. Daniel took on calibrating each and every launch to ensure the ball’s projectile motion landed in its target. Michael was our architect, he drew pictures of both prototypes before we built them. Slater gave us the catapult idea and made a cone to hold the ball; he also had the biggest role as our main presenter before a panel of 7 judges. Jacob and Josh constantly helped and improved our model launcher.

I couldn’t be more proud of these five kids. They worked hard on the project — but I was most impressed with how well they worked together. Daniel leaned over and said to me before they announced the results, “I hope we place.” I hoped so too, but I knew we had a shot at first place too because no other team made all three of their competition launches as close to the target as we did and the boys did a great job answering the judges’ questions. So when our school was not named for 3rd or 2nd place, I could see the boys quietly squealing in their seats (I guess I was too). We went to a nearby Costco snack bar to celebrate before heading back to school.

Each student received a $30 gift card from Barnes & Noble and a “first place” certificate. They will also be invited to visit a real naval ship later this year. Our school got a framed certificate. The local newspaper cameraman had been at the event the whole day, and a news reporter came to interview us.

This was the second time we won first place at the NAVSEA Engineering Challenge. We won back in 2008. The team of five students that year would always remember that winning day as the day Mrs. Nguyen got a speeding ticket. On our way to the event — with five students in my car — I got pulled over by a policeman on motorcycle for doing 50 in a 35-mile zone apparently. Quite miffed by this, I turned to my students and said, “You guys better win this competition!” They did.

Now we have two of these. Go Tigers!!