Wings students lift junk to higher purpose

Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Students at Wings Christian Academy performed a sort of miracle Friday.

In just two hours, teams of seventh- through 12th-graders transformed a pile of junk into five working elevators.

The upper-grade students were participating in the private school's annual Junkyard Wars competition, a spin-off of the popular cable TV show.

On The Learning Channel's program, adult teams work in a real junkyard, scrounging materials to build a machine that will beat a competing team's creation in a battle at the end of the show.

Vicki Spilman, the upper-grade teacher at Wings, first saw the show six or seven years ago, when her mother sent her a tape of it. Spilman said she immediately thought she could adapt the idea into a learning activity for her students.

Though based on the TV show, the Wings competition is a little different. For one thing, instead of taking students to a junkyard, Spilman brings the junkyard to the school.

"Before I throw anything away for about three months before the contest, I ask myself, 'Can this be used?'" she said.

She added many parents also have gotten into the project, bringing all sorts of items from home prior to the competition.

The contest works like this:

Spilman chooses a team captain for each group, and the captain is responsible for confidentially picking team members. Spilman encourages each captain to design a "dream team," one that includes individuals with strengths in imagination, artistic ability, math and science and leadership.

On the day of the competition, teams enter the gym and have a chance to peruse the "junkyard" in the middle of the room. They don't know what they will be assigned to build, however, until just one minute before the contest starts.

Once Spilman announces the assignment, teams get started. Only one person at a time is allowed to leave the team's workspace to collect a single building material. Teams then have two hours to develop a design idea, collect their materials and build and decorate a working model of the assigned machine.

Then, the contraptions are judged by a group of parents and teachers on the basis of function, design creativity and school spirit.

In past years, the assignments have included a car, a flying machine and a catapult.


Elisabeth Wood watches as Jeremy Thompson draws his design idea for their team's contraption.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

This year's assignment was an elevator. Spilman told students they could build any type of lift, including a traditional elevator, a dumbwaiter, a ski lift or even a Panama Canal-style water lock.

Students started out with just a hammer and a drill at their group tables, then sorted among a pile of junk containing wood, egg cartons, PVC pipes, screws, nails and an assortment of other "thingamajigs." They used white, dry erase boards to sketch idea designs then got to building fast.

The contraptions were as varied as Spilman's list of examples. Using the same set of materials and instructions, all five teams came up with completely different designs.

The Squirts Melissa Newton, 12, Greg VanCuren, 12, Alisha Thompson, 12, Kreasa Brown, 14, and Eben Spilman, 18 made one of the more simple lifts. The cube-shaped design used dual pulleys to life a flat platform.

"The most difficult thing was thinking how to make it, what exactly we were going to do," Alisha said. "It wasn't really hard once we got the idea."

In fact, once the Squirts got their idea, they worked quickly to build it and had plenty of time left to decorate the final product.

"I think we showed the most team spirit," Greg said, noting the blue and white paint job and bright ribbons adorning the lift.

The Sharks Troy Consiel, 13, Mickelle Waters, 12, Elisabeth Wood, 16, and Jeremy Thompson, 15 also made a simple lift, though one of immense proportions. By far the largest contraption built Friday, the Sharks' final product stood more than six feet tall and used a pulley system to lift two coffee cans of different weight.

"For making it out of junk, it's pretty good," Jeremy said, explaining that the team didn't have as much time to decorate as others.

"It doesn't look as pretty, but it works good," Elisabeth agreed.

In another corner of the room, the Dories Julianne Pettey, 15, Leah Howell, 14, Lindsay Thompson, 14, and Rebekah Wood, 12 made a box-like structure with a small elevator that could take mock passengers to a second-story basketball court.

"We just kinda started something and everybody had ideas," Lindsay said. "It just kept coming."

The basketball court was a last-minute decision, team members said.

"We like basketball," Lindsay said, noting its one of the few sports the school participates in.

"We thought it would represent our school," added Julianne.

But, she said, "We needed five more minutes."


Cassie Sutton stands back as her twin brother, Jacob, cuts a board held by Joel Conseil for the team's Junkyard Wars project.

Photo by Jenni Dillon

In fact, most of the students agreed that a little more time would have led to near-perfect designs.

"We needed an extra three hours," said Cassie Sutton, 17, a member of the Gills.

She and her teammates, Joel Consiel, 14, Zack Thompson, 12, and Jacob Sutton, 17, made a ski lift, though they admitted it wasn't their original plan.

Using large PVC pipes, wood and a pulley system, the team had planned to make a traditional elevator. By the end, though, their contraption didn't look quite right.

"It kind of looked like a ski lift," Jacob said.

So they added white boards to symbolize snow and a GI Joe action figure to the lift as a passenger.

"It did actually almost work by the end," Jacob said.

Finally, the Seagulls Kaylee Burger, 15, Naomi Pettey, 13, Amy Wood, 14, and Marilyn Holt, 12 had the most unique design. Inspired by their teachers list of possible lifts, the girls decided to try a water lock-style lift ala the Panama Canal. Using a bottle, attached to a brass spout and sealed by a balloon, the contraption filled a plastic box with water, elevating the boat inside the box.

"(Mrs. Spilman) mentioned the Panama Canal; I had been watching TV shows (about it), so I thought of that," Marilyn said. "They figured out the rest."

The team admitted they might have made the model a bit more festive if time had allowed, but they insisted function was most important.

"Ours is quality," Marilyn said. "It won't fall apart."

It took a lot of work to get it to that point, though, the girls said.

"Duct tape heals anything," Marilyn said.

Junk war standings

The Wings Christian Aca-demy Junkyard Wars competition may have been a little friendlier than the television battle on which it's based, but it still is a contest.

The five teams were ranked by a group of judges who scored projects on design, creativity, function and school spirit.

"I think it's neat," said Wanda Boutwell, the wife of Pastor Ray Boutwell at Immanuel Baptist Church, where the school is housed. "The kids really used a lot of imagination. Not only that, but every one of those work."

Still, there must be a winner.

The Dories, who made the contraption with a second-story basketball court, placed first.

The Squirts, with their neatly decorated design, placed second.

The Seagulls, with the water-lock lift, placed third.

The Sharks, with their oversized, coffee-can lift, placed fourth.

The Gills, with their list-minute ski lift, placed fifth.

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