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Roller coaster engineers

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Most everyone likes roller coasters. What if you were given the opportunity to construct one?

Storm Lake High School science students have had that chance and one of the 10 models will compete in the annual Tau Beta Pi roller coaster competition on the campus of Iowa State University.

The competition was started several years ago by an Urbandale High School teacher in order to reach out to high school students who have an interest in mathematics, physics and engineering. The competition gives students an opportunity to apply theory to a project that is both fun and challenging. This is the first year that SLHS will be represented.

This year's competition will be held on Thursday, April 2. Tau Beta Pi is the National Engineering Honor Society.

Creativity and problem solving are two high order thinking skills that are hard to teach. All that really can be done is to provide opportunities for students to apply and practice these skills. This competition is designed to fulfill that purpose. The problem solving skills that students will learn will be invaluable in any field their path takes them (engineering, science, other). This competition is also designed to promote interest in engineering and science. The competition is open to all students in grades 7-12.

The mission was to build a roller coaster that transports a ball from a specified starting point to a specified end point (10-25 mm ball bearings work best) in one minute, give or take five seconds, and completes the Rube Goldberg Challenge. The assembled coaster must be no larger than 4' long by 2.5' wide by 4' high. Prefabricated construction toys were not allowed. Any type of energy may be used except chemical (includes fire), human, NUCLEAR, and electric. One group at SLHS chose to use Barbie dolls on its roller coaster but are used only for looks so are allowable. Basically, the coaster must be mechanical (springs, rubber bands, magnets and gravitational potential energy) and once the ball is moving on its own no one may touch the ball the coaster or influence its performance in any way. The same ball that begins the coaster does not have to be the same one that ends, which means the energy from one ball can be transferred to that of another ball. Once one ball starts another ball, the first ball should stop shortly thereafter. Ten "tricks" are required of each roller coaster.

Each year there is a Rube Goldberg challenge. Given this competition will occur during the time of March Madness, this year the judges requested that the "engineers" design a mechanism that shoots a ball into a basket (much like a free-throw in basketball).

Previous years' challenges included incorporating a mouse trap, lighting up a light bulb and raising a flag.

The 40 students of Andrew Kuker worked in groups and constructed 10 roller coasters. The work was done on their own time. The coasters were due last week and students demonstrated their work. Students then voted on which one coaster should represent SLHS at the competition.

The brightly colored and candy adorned "Willy Wonka" coaster constructed by Katie Demers, Erin Tucker and Stephanie Emery received the most votes. They shared that the construction process enveloped nearly all of their free time from Super Bowl weekend until completion last week.

Seniors, they were told last year by their teacher that the roller coaster construction would be part of their curriculum - they came up with their ideas last year.

Willy Wonka-brand candies are used throughout the display including gumballs, Nerds and Nerds Rope. (Their favorite candy - Sour Patch Kids - was consumed and gave them quick energy as they worked to put the coaster together.)

They learned there were three necessities to have on hand for holding everything together - hot glue, zip ties and of course, Duct tape.

"Building this was our life since Jan. 11," they laughed. But it was worth it as they are pleased, after many attempts, that their "tricks" work. They will do some fine-tuning as they prepare for the trip to ISU and are relieved that they will have their lives back!

Nathan Robey and Joe McKenna used a Christmas theme for their roller coaster, using a lot of ornaments, decorations and red and green paint. The coaster uses six mousetraps throughout and they have learned to carefully set the traps, which are eventually set off by different objects during the run.

The Hobo Coaster is made up of recycled items (a broken chair is the main area) and was constructed by Linda Her, Cory Vogel, Jose Diaz and Kyle Richter. It isn't the prettiest coaster, but it, too, through trial and error, worked.

The project, which counts for much of their grade for the semester, is a great learning experience for the science students as they see their ideas become part of motion.



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