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Students put skills to the test in design competition

Posted on Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 6:37 pm

MCHS student Dakota Bateman works on designing his elevatorARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. – The idea of creating an elevator that can reach space is daunting enough.

Doing it with materials that may have been worth less than the box they came in is even more so.

But several area high school students took on the task at this year’s Student Design Competition, held at the Hands-On Science Center Feb. 21 as part of National Engineers Week.

Students from Moore, Coffee County, Cascade, Huntland and Shelbyville Central high schools as well as Webb School all took on the task of creating a device that could lift a payload at least half a meter into the air.

The materials the 42 students worked with were chosen by AEDC engineers and looked more like the leftovers found in the bottom of an arts and crafts bin than building materials. Toilet paper rolls, metal nuts, straws, pencils and pipe cleaners were just a few of the items they were given to work with.

Nissa Smith, an aerospace engineer in AEDC’s analysis group, was in charge of picking what went in the boxes. The idea was to give the students a shoestring budget to work with and flimsy materials that would challenge them to come up with creative solutions.

“There was a group of us that was looking at material ideas, and if one of us came up with a material that we thought we could use, we stuck it in there,” Smith said.

The students were scored on an equation that factored in the weight of their payload, the height it traveled to and the amount of time it took to reach its maximum sustained height. Some students chose to focus on different factors in order to score more points.

Huntland High School senior Ethan Scott said he enjoyed building his team’s elevator and the teamwork aspect, but he was more focused on getting his team’s elevator to work. It failed during the test portion of the competition, but that didn’t diminish his spirit.

“I’ve learned to accept failure and laugh about it,” he said.

Moore County High School junior Dakota Bateman said he felt the pressure of coming up with a design and then trying to execute it with the materials within the two-hour time limit. He and his partner worked down to the wire.

Despite the pressure of working with the materials they were given, Bateman says he enjoyed working with his hands – part of the reason he’s already planning on a career in engineering.

“I like everything to be exact,” he said. “In reading and English, it’s all opinionated. In math, it’s the same thing for everybody. Absolute.”

Not all of the designs carried out their objective, but Smith said exposing students to a side of engineering they may not always see at the high school level was the most important part of the competition.

“Most people think engineering is just really complicated and boring, and by having fun things like this to do, they can realize that it’s not just sitting at a desk and coming up with equations and calculations,” she said. “You can actually think and do fun projects.”

Moore County High School physics and chemistry teacher Doug Price said that’s why he brings students to the competition and has every year for several years. He said he sometimes chooses students for the competition who aren’t necessarily interested in engineering, but he believes they should be exposed to it as a career possibility.

“The one thing I’ve noticed over the years is it makes it kind of cool to be smart,” Price said. “I think they feel like they’re part of that crowd when they come in here.”

AEDC Commander Col. Michael Brewer was one of the judges for student presentations. When all of the teams had tested their devices, he spoke to them and encouraged them to pursue a career in engineering because of its ability to have an impact on a large number of people.

“We all drove here in a car or a bus,” Brewer said. “We all have phones at work and televisions. And everything that makes our life as comfortable as it is was developed by scientists and engineers and mathematicians. It’s the engineers and scientists who – no kidding – will reshape and change the world.”

The top three teams were awarded Amazon Kindle e-reading devices. Haena Lee and Tyler Burns from Webb School came in first place, Webb’s Tianyuen Wang and Dongwon Choi came in second and Moore County High School students Erica Limbaugh and Sarah Raby placed third.

The competition and other National Engineers Week activities were sponsored by the Tullahoma chapter of the Tennessee Society of Professional Engineers (TSPE), the Highland Rim chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the local Tennessee chapter of the International Test and Evaluation Association (ITEA) and the Tennessee section of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA).