Competition draws talent, unique building materials

Posted: Monday, October 11, 2010

The Soldotna Middle School gym was chock-full with elementary and middle school students Saturday at the Mind a-Mazes problem solving competition.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Soldotna Elementary School's Emily Pieh, Austin Asp and Max Cox rush to set up their machine before being judged Saturday in the Mind-A-Mazes academic challenge at Soldotna Middle School.

Sponsored by Quest, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's program for gifted and talented students, the day-long competition consisting of both long term and spontaneous problems gives children the ability to test their skills.

"It teaches the kids teamwork and simple machines. They learn about all that and they learn to create something with just their imagination," said Cathleen Rolph, a Quest teacher with the district.

This year 46 teams of some four students each competed in the competition.

The long-term problem was for them to create a contraption that could ring a bell, turn a fan blade, raise an object, stretch a rubber band, spill a container of beans and burst an inflated non-latex glove. And all that in a matter of 30 seconds.

The gym looked look a real-live version of the board game "Mousetrap" with several different devices spread out on the floor made of all different things.

Gail Moore, a Quest teacher and Mind a-Mazes coordinator, said the students had to create their devices for less than $10.

That price tag meant all sorts of materials were used including popsicle sticks, paper plates, zip ties and PVC pipe.

The team "The Cake is Alive" made up of students from Nikiski Middle/High School and Nikiski North Star Elementary made their machine out of an old plywood yard sale sign.

"The building is fun though it's troublesome occasionally," said Ross Halliday, 12, a seventh grader in Nikiski.

He said the project took him and his two teammates Thomas Halliday, 9, and Autumn Walters, 13, some eight days to construct.

And with only one shot at competing with their device for judges, they scored 155 points out of a possible 350 on their long-term problem.

"That's better than we thought because pretty much everything fell apart," Walters said.

Their project utilized a bouncy ball on a ramp that used gravity and inertia to try and defeat the specified obstacles. Along the ramp where the ball was supposed to hit a paper plate trigger to spill the beans read a little sign that said "Bean Street."

Another team from Homer Middle School had a secret weapon for their project.

"We used an entire roll of duct tape," said Patrick Latimer, a 13-year-old eighth grader in Homer.

"We had a lot of fun building it," said his teammate Jonas Noomah, also 13 of Homer. "None of us are exactly architects so we didn't think about building it we thought about designing it."

They relied on "lots of fishing weights" to propel their machine and solve their problems.

But, according to their other teammate and classmate Paul Trowbridge, "it was unpredictable." They got 180 out of the 350 possible points.

"It's a great design except when it doesn't work," Latimer said.

And even though they were hoping for 300 points, Latimer said their team could make up for lost points with the spontaneous problem.

Moore said most of the students look forward to the spontaneous problem more than the long-term one.

It's about "making snap decisions," she said.

"The kids are excited, nervous, and anxious to see whether they succeeded or not," Moore said.

This year's spontaneous problem: building the highest structure possible with playing cards, coins and paperclips.

But the spontaneous problem competition had its own spontaneous problem when the competitors ripped open their materials bags and some did not have paperclips.

"Even the adults have to problem solve," Moore said, as she hustled down the hall to find some paperclips for the students.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at

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