Students construct simple machines, develop teamwork

Posted: Monday, October 26, 2009

Bumping heads and sharing ideas might seem like a good thing when it comes to problem solving, but Mikaela Salzetti, Alyssa Nacca, David Beck and Caleb Rohm, all sixth-graders at Kenai Middle School, can vouch that sometimes that just makes for more headaches

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Photos by M. Scott Moon Fireweed Academy students Quinn Alward, Ren Carroll, Jimmy Kraszeski and Megan Kirsis work on a spontaneous problem presented to participants at the Mind-a-Mazes competition at Soldotna Middle School earlier this month.

The four participated as a team, the D'Homee Katz, in this year's Mind-a-Mazes event held at Soldotna Middle School.

Mind-a-Mazes is held every fall featuring a different challenge where participating students are asked to design and build a working device with limited resources.

The competition is put on by the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Quest Program for gifted and talented students.

Brian Bailey, an event organizer, said at least 47 other teams from 16 different schools from around the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District took part in the event held on Oct. 10.

This year's long-term project that the teams had a month to prepare for was "Crazy Catapults."

Students were tasked to design, construct, calibrate and set off a device capable of launching a ball into a large wastepaper basket without the assistance of human or electronic power.

The teams were only told the target would be somewhere between 3 to 36 feet away.

At the meet, the randomly selected metric distance that devices had to shoot for was 6 meters, or just under 20 feet.

If teams got their ball into the basket, they received 75 points, if they hit the wastebasket, they got 50 points and if they hit a one-meter, or almost 11 square-foot, piece of paper underneath the basket, they received 25 points.

The smallest object the teams were allowed to launch was a racquetball, the largest, a basketball.

Though a few teams tried slingshots, the Kenai Middle team chose to build a catapult.

"We had so many ideas," Nacca said.

"We tried to merge them all together," Beck said.

Originally they relied on a wooden spoon to serve as the catapult's arm, but just days before the competition, disaster struck and the spoon broke.

They had to find a solution fast.

"My dad took me on an 8:30 run to Home Depot," Salzetti said, and thus the catapult's PVC-pipe arms came to existence.

They constructed two different length arms made of 1-inch diameter PVC-pipe.

The longer arm was to be used for throwing their ball a farther distance, though it was sidelined on game day.

Each arm had bolts drilled through it at intervals of about an inch.

The team used rubber bands and a calibration system they developed just a day before the event, to put the arm under more or less spring-loaded tension depending on how far they wanted to lob their ball by attaching bands to the different bolts.

They also built a sturdy base that could be propped up to give the contraption a better firing angle.

The whole thing was painted in the school's colors -- purple and gold.

At the event they were relieved the distance selected by the judges was within reach of their invention, and they set it up, confident they could reach the basket.

Unfortunately, the catapult sent their ball sailing just an inch over the top of the basket, and they scored no points.

Beck said he thought maybe they had angled the catapult too steeply, and all agreed that while they knew they only got one shot at the competition, they could have used a second to line up their aim.

There was still a chance at redemption.

The second aspect of Mind-a-Mazes is the "spontaneous problem," where this year the teams had eight minutes to build the longest cantilever possible from the top of a folding chair using only a cup, some paper clips, a few straws, popsicle sticks, pipe cleaner and tape.

The cantilevers couldn't touch the floor.

"You have to divide your time equally between planning and building," Salzetti said. "If you take too much time planning then it doesn't work."

The group was ahead of the gun though.

They saw the title, and while the judges were explaining the details, they were planning how to build.

Nacca said that by the time their competition had started to think about how they would tackle the challenge, her team was already building.

Their cantilever extended 40.5-inches from the chair and topped the closest competitor's by almost 10 inches, the team reported.

They won the challenge, and gained some confidence.

The team that had struggled at first to find a way to merge all their different ideas had learned to function as a single thinking and constructing unit.

"I don't work in groups very well," Salzetti said. "I always seem to come up with the ideas by myself. So working with a group is really good for my education, seeing as I'll be doing that until I get out of school."

Dante Petri can be reached at

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