Students Create Elaborate Homemade Machines for JPL Competition

Some 250 students hauled homemade machines they’d spent weeks honing to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California on Friday, Dec. 8, for the 24th annual JPL Invention Challenge.

The rules for the creative engineering competition change every year, but the overall goal is the same: Build a device capable of accomplishing a specified task within 60 seconds. This year, teams needed to come up with machines that could accomplish seven consecutive steps, ultimately dropping a crumpled piece of paper in a wastebasket. Students employed trebuchet catapults, crossbows, small motors, and “things with a bit of oomph,” said mechanical systems engineer Paul MacNeal, who has been organizing the competition since it began in 1998.

“The Mouse Trap game from when I was a little kid is what it’s patterned after,” MacNeal said, referring to the board game in which players would construct elaborate traps for each other’s plastic rodents. “It was such a tough competition this year. It’s almost like unfolding the James Webb Space Telescope: Every action has to go right.”

And in this competition, fast. Every team that completed the task did so in under five seconds.

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JPL’s Paul MacNeal started the Invention Challenge so that students could experience the fun of hands-on engineering and of STEM learning while developing team-building skills.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Team Pink, the winning student team from Oakwood High School in North Hollywood, California, sank its paper ball in the basket in just 1.25 seconds, using a launcher at the start to knock over a series of five dominoes. The last domino hit a switch that turned on a conveyor belt to push the paper ball into the basket.

“I was a little nervous at the beginning,” said Team Pink member and Oakwood High senior Midori Bonner. “There are a lot of good teams that were going really fast, but we’ve been training so hard for almost four months, I had faith in our team and the work we had put in.”

Team Roman Bridge from Los Angeles Senior High School and Team Green from Oakwood High School took second and third place, respectively.

Eighteen of the student teams competing in Friday’s finals had survived two regional events in November involving 40 school teams from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Four JPL-sponsored teams of professional engineers separately battled it out.

Having professional engineers compete is part of MacNeal’s larger goal of inspiring students: He started the free competition so that they could experience the fun of hands-on engineering and of STEM learning while developing team-building skills along the way. He provides participants with nothing but the rules; teams have to figure out the rest themselves.

“Even if they don’t do well, they worked hard to get where they were,” MacNeal said. “It’s just satisfying to see all the inventions they come up with.”

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