Most high school students don't know much about catapults, let alone the ins and outs of a device from the Middle Ages called a trebuchet.
But for four Cottonwood High Schools students in the MESA program -- Margarita Arteaga, 15; Hollie Green, 16; and Emilio Camu and Uyen Nguyen, both 17 -- that knowledge was the ticket to winning top honors at state and a chance to compete at nationals, which was held this summer in Denver.
MESA -- Math, Engineering, Science Achievement -- is a club to introduce minority students and women to careers in those fields.
Kathy McDonald, advisor to MESA and a math teacher at Cottonwood High, says the club is intended to help students with academic-related needs. Last year, MESA, which had about 20 members, also hosted meetings on college admissions and scholarships and participated in the regional Science Olympiad.
"These kids are just gung ho about science and math," McDonald said.
Every year, MESA sponsors a science fair-type project, using the same subject three years in a row. This was the final year of the trebuchet project; next year's subject is windmills.
Students receive a packet at the beginning of the school year with instructions and requirements on the project. Members break up into pairs or teams of four and have about six months to do research and build the object. This was the first time Arteaga and Green participated in the optional project; both Camu and Nguyen (pronounced win) attempted the trebuchet in previous years.
"We're all kind of nerds, but we became really good friends throughout the project," Arteaga said.
"For me, the science thing was the biggest pull. A lot of people stay away from it because it's nerdy, but [MESA and the trebuchet project] provides a lot of opportunities," said Camu, who with Nguyen won a full scholarship to Utah State University for competing in the Physics Bowl at Lagoon two years ago, another MESA-related activity.
"Being in MESA affords you a lot of different opportunities to help prepare you for college, and it's a great outlet for us to do more than just academics," Nguyen said.
Specialists at the state and national level were local engineers and scientists who judged each project on different key points: One of the requirements was making the trebuchet as light as possible. The Cottonwood High students used balsa wood, but others used PVC piping. Students also had to write a 10- to 15-page technical paper, give a 10-minute oral presentation and create a visual display, which the four made out of Plexiglas. Students were required to demonstrate how far their trebuchet could fling an object; how accurately they could position the catapult to hit a target; and whether the device was strong enough to fling a large mass through a target.
"The trebuchet project gives the students challenges they have to step up to. It's a practical application of physics and math and applying that to this project to utilize and create something," McDonald said. "It took them easily over 100 hours to prepare."
Schools from seven states participated in the national event, including Maryland, Oregon, Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico. The Cottonwood students didn't place in the top three schools although they think they might have been in fourth place because during the trophy ceremony, an announcer initially listed Utah as third place winners before quickly noting that New Mexico took the bronze spot. But, they all agreed just going to Denver and meeting the other teams was a good experience.
"We even saw David Cook!" Camu said.