STEM girls are a smash hit

7th December 2017

An all-girl group of STEM students from a leading Staffordshire independent grammar school smashed it with an ace performance in an engineering challenge to build a tennis ball launcher.

The eight girls, aged 11 and 12, from St Dominic’s Grammar School, Brewood, were the youngest among six teams in the contest, run annually by Stafford-based Perkins Engines.

On top of that, they were the only students to get the ball into the target in the three-year history of the competition, which challenges local schools to design and build a mechanical device that can propel a standard tennis ball “further than Federer”.

They nailed the first prize of £1,000 to spend on equipment for the school’s STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths – department and an impressive glass table made from engine components.

“The girls felt they didn’t have a chance as the other teams were all Year 11 pupils – while ours were in Year 7 – and their design was much smaller,” said St Dominic’s STEM teacher Vanessa O’Neill.

“They were up against some pretty hefty catapults – but theirs really nailed it and actually hit the ball into the net, 12 metres away, three times. Our team was so excited to have won £1,000 for the school and the amazing table made out of Perkins’ engine components.”

The girls, who all attend Mrs O’Neill’s after-school STEM club on Thursdays, had five months to design and perfect their tennis ball launcher.

They began by researching various kinds of catapults online and then built their launcher from timber and rope.

School caretaker Martin Pemberton was called in to help to cut the wood to size.

The girls then began testing their device ready for the big shoot-out against other schools, checking how many times they needed to wind it up to get pinpoint accuracy and practising technique.

On the big day, each team member had three attempts at hitting the target, notching up a total of three hits between them. None of the other teams managed to get a ball into the net.

Mark Stones, trainee and apprentice coordinator at Perkins Engines, said the company worked closely with local school and colleges to encourage students to consider engineering as a possible career.

The annual challenge helped students to learn to work as a team and think outside the box to gain a better understanding of science, technology, engineering and maths.

Mr Stones, who has now presented the girls with their prize, added: “St Dominic’s competed in the challenge for the first time in 2017 and came out as the overall winners.

“It was a pleasure to see the girls working as a team and their launcher design, although a little on the small side compared to other designs, ticked all of the boxes with regards to the design and development.

“As part of the challenge, the girls were required to deliver a short presentation covering the design, development process and their various roles within the team. The presentation was one of the very best we had ever seen and it was very clear to the judging panel that they had put a great deal of work and thought into the challenge.

“They were worthy winners and great ambassadors for the school.”