Meeting of the minds

Competition challenges teamwork, engineering skills

Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2005


  Dallas Pierren, from left, Keir Johnson and Joseph Grossl observe their Mind-A-Mazes device in action. The team is from Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai. Photo by Will Morrow

Dallas Pierren, from left, Keir Johnson and Joseph Grossl observe their Mind-A-Mazes device in action. The team is from Mountain View Elementary School in Kenai.

Photo by Will Morrow

From the frantic calls for more duct tape emerged some impressive engineering at the Mind-A-Mazes 2005 event on Oct. 8 at Soldotna Middle School.

"Those of us that coach appreciate the process probably more than we do the final product because we see the trial and error that goes into it, the testing of new hypotheses, changing of variables and testing again," said Mind-A-Mazes organizer Sara Hepner, a Quest teacher with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District.

"Coaches work with the kids for three to four weeks prior to the competition. I would doubt that any of the devices that showed up (for the competition) were the original prototype that the kids started with."

This year's theme was "Life's little ups and downs," and teams of three to five students were challenged to construct a device that would raise a weight 1 meter, then lower it a meter, with a few twists for good measure: The device had to make a sound as the weight reached its apex; the descent should have taken as close to two minutes as possible; and the device or weight had to trigger an "event" at the conclusion of the descent.

What that event would be was left to the students' imaginations, and with but a few restrictions for safety and size, young engineers dreamed up quite a few different ways to solve the problem.

Some teams went with ropes, pulleys and gravity to move their weight, using sand, salt or water as a counterweight to first raise the weight. Devices also contained a mechanism to then lighten the counterweight, allowing the weight to descend.

Some teams even used hydraulics to move their weight, filling a tube with water and using a float to raise and lower the weight. Another team came up with a series of ramps to slow the descent of their weight.

Teams also were limited to $10 for supplies; devices are expected to be constructed from objects scrounged or donated from students' homes. Construction materials included everything from wood to plastic jugs to cardboard — even some Pringles cans adorned one machine.

"We put an emphasis on teamwork with the kids," Hepner said. "It's a team problem-solving situation, so they're practicing group skills and collaboration as well as using their creative and critical thinking skills."

The event, which was started in the mid-1980s, is sponsored by the school district's Quest program for gifted students but is open to all district students.

Hepner noted that many teachers use the projects as part of their science curriculum and get their whole class involved.

Hepner said that just having a device ready for the competition is a huge accomplishment; 60 teams had registered prior to the event and 50 teams made it to the competition.

With so much time and effort put into building a device, the actual competition can be emotional.

"There's a lot of pride invested. Like in any competition, a big part of it is luck. Those devices that worked perfectly a dozen times in a row sometimes get out of line when they're moved. There's always some disappointment," Hepner said. "But there's always a surprise when something works perfectly that has never worked before."

After judging of the prepared devices, teams tackled a spontaneous problem to finish off the competition. This year, teams were given some materials and had to create a device that would stay in motion for as long as possible.

The winners in the junior division (grades four, five and six) were able to come up with a device that stayed in motion for 6 minutes, 33 seconds; the winning seniors (seventh through 12th grade) clocked in at 7:45.

While problems are sent out four or five weeks before the competition each year, Hepner said she's already had kids ask for next year's challenge.

"It's a pretty unique opportunity. I don't know of anything else like it offered in the district or in the community," she said.

"The kids are required to build something from nothing. Also, it's a nonsporting event that is a spectator event, which is unusual."

Mind-A-Mazes winners

Junior winners (Grades 4-6): First place — Shadow Gremlins, Nikiski North Star Elementary (Lincoln Johnson, Caleb Alkire, Trey Zimmerman, Logan Harrison; coach — Brian Bailey). Second place — The Freds, Soldotna Elementary (Brooke Hughes, Taylor VonHeeder, Dylan Briggs, John Wynkoop, Christopher Clements; coaches — Gail Moore, Karlene Meyers). Third place (tie) — The Pink Monkeys, West Homer Elementary (Garrett Hall, Marie Schmidt, Kyle Wisner, Meaghan McCallum; coaches — Suzanne Haines, Harmon Hall); Rajacoha, Mountian View Elementary (Courtney Stroh, Hanah Hoff, Raquelle Reynolds, Jodi Cook; Coach — JP Bennett).

Spontaneous problem — Shadow Gremlins, Nikiski North Star Elementary.

Judges' Choice — The Pink Monkeys, West Homer Elementary.

Intermediate/senior winners (Grades 7-12): First place — Reels of Resistance, Nikiski Middle-Senior High (Ari Bennett, Sebastian Strickland, Stefan Krogseng; Coach — Brian Bailey); Second place — Jesus Freaks, Seward Middle (Brett Chase, Trever Clark, Amanda Olsen; coach — Agusta Lind); Third place — Flip, Seward Middle (Ryan O'Leary, Austin Gillespie, Tyler Morris, Nick Broughton; coach — Agusta Lind).

Spontaneous problem — Reels of Resistance, Nikiski Middle-Senior High.

Judges' Choice — Cosmic Homeroids, Homer Middle School (Emerson Quarton, Cheyenne DeLoach, Jordyn Mayforth, Joanna Coke, Bailey Richards; coaches — Suzanne Haines, Rick Quarton).

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