Blowing young minds

Students challenged to create ‘long-winded gizmos’

Posted: Wednesday, November 08, 2006


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  Students challenged to create 'long-winded gizmos' Photo by Will Morrow

Sierra Glonek, Joy Wannamaker, Jacob Gilman and Krystal Hamman, sixth-graders at Kenai Middle School, do some brainstorming earlier this week as they prepare their device for the Mind a-Mazes competition. The competition, scheduled for Saturday at Soldotna Middle School, challenges student teams to create a device that will harness wind power.

Photo by Will Morrow

The problem: Design and build a “long-winded gizmo,” a device that utilizes wind power to travel as far as it can in a straight line while carrying a 1.25-ounce weight.

The solution: Give student teams of four about a month to scrounge classrooms and scavenge their homes for potential pieces and parts, design, build, test and redesign their contraptions, then set them loose for the annual Mind a-Mazes competition Saturday at Soldotna Middle School.

Check-in for the event begins at 11 a.m. Saturday, with competition for the junior division, students in grades four, five and six, slated to begin at 12:30 p.m. The intermediate and senior teams, students in seventh through 12th grade, take to the floor at 1:30 p.m., and a spontaneous problem for all divisions to solve will be given out at 2:15 p.m.

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

Debbie Page-O’Connell, the Quest teacher for Mountain View Elementary and Kenai Middle School, said the great thing about the competition is that it encourages kids to use their imaginations, a rare commodity in this day and age.


Students challenged to create 'long-winded gizmos'

Photo by Will Morrow

“There’s so much technology, and things are made for convenience, we’re not using our minds any more,” Page-O’Connell said. “This gets kids using their imaginations, like in the old days.”

Indeed, the competition limits teams to $10 for the purchase of raw materials, such as wood, screws or glue. All other materials must be found objects — trash can lids, old Styrofoam insulation, plastic bags, bamboo skewers, even an empty tissue box has been “found” and utilized by Page-O’Connell’s students at Kenai Middle School.

In fact, Page-O’Connell’s classes each have found different ways of harnessing wind power, which will be provided by a 20-by-20-inch box fan set on “high.”

“They’ve all been led by their curiosity and thought process, which makes every class an adventure,” Page-O’Connell said.

Most of her teams have gone through several prototypes before settling on a final design. Some of the redesigns were due to unfortunate accidents rather than technical improvements, but it’s all part of the learning process.

“As their coach, I try to facilitate, get them talking and help them focus, but I’m not offering any suggestions,” Page-O’Connell said.

James Watkins, an eighth-grader and a veteran of Mind a-Mazes competition, said his team originally started with a big sail, using a hula hoop and the cut-out rim of a trash can lid, but both ideas were scrapped because they were too big and heavy.

A bit of serendipity led to his final design, when he tied the hex nut to a shopping bag and was intrigued by the result.

“We were just messing around, but it turned out to be a good idea,” Watkins said. “We went through three or four different models before we settled on one that would be the best.”

Other Kenai Middle School teams also have worked through a progression of ideas before finalizing their designs.

“We started out with a propeller and wooden wheels,” said Natalie Kurzendoerfer, an eighth-grader.

“But the wooden wheels were causing too much friction,” said Annalise Theisen.

Now, Watkins and Mind a-Mazes hopefuls from around the district are spending the week fine-tuning their designs. Watkins and his team are looking for ways to make sure their vehicle stays within a 4-foot-wide lane.

“It’s basically trial and error,” said Adam Agosti, also an eighth-grader.

Watkins said the fun part of the competition is creating a device with teammates, but the competition itself can be stressful.

“You only get one chance at the competition. It could work perfectly, then one little thing goes wrong ... you just hope that it works, but you never really know what’s going to happen,” Watkins said.

At the competition, teams will score points for the distance their device travels, with bonus points for staying between the lines. Teams also will be judged on their spontaneous problem-solving skills, which will require teamwork and communication, something Page-O’Connell said she’s seen develop in her students during the building process.

“I’ve really seen a big change in all of them, the way they’re working together,” Page O’Connell said.

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