In their quest for a winning Rube Goldberg-like device, Erin Knight and Sarah Stoddard of Yankton High School found that, in this National Science Olympiad event, simplicity is the best path to success.
And that helped them placed seventh nationally in the “Mission Possible” event at the Olympiad recently.
Competition is stiff at the two-day National Science Olympiad, in which 60 teams from across the country competed in myriad events that drew on knowledge from many different scientific disciplines. This year’s tournament drew over 2,000 students to Cornell University in New York on May 31-June 1. In addition to testing participants’ performance in their chosen scientific events, the tournament also aims to teach the value of problems solving and teamwork.
Goldberg was a 20th century cartoonist famous for drawings of devices that made simple tasks complex by taking a dozen or more mechanical steps to complete them. One famous example of Goldberg’s devices is the cartoon of the Self-Wiping Napkin, in which a man wears an elaborate head gear that is attached to his spoon. The act of eating triggers 13 actions that culminate in a napkin wiping his chin.
Knight’s and Stoddard’s project included 14 actions which combined not just physical engineering, but also electrical and chemical engineering as well.
The types of actions required of each device included using a ping-pong ball to move a golf ball to turn on a microswitch that turns on an infrared transmitter that activated a thermoelectric cooler. At one point, a chemical reaction inflated a balloon that moved a series of levers that flipped a U.S. quarter to land tails up, completing a circuit between two electrical contacts that ran a motor. All electricity had to be powered from a single nine-volt battery.
Both Stoddard and Knight have participated in the “Mission Possible” event before.
“I’ve done the ‘Mission Possible’ three years,” Stoddard said. “The first was with another girl back in middle school. That was all the physical, mechanical stuff; nothing was chemical or electrical. The second year was with Erin, and that was very much the physical and mechanical. There were a few chemical (actions), but not many. And then this year, a lot of electrical stuff.”
Another difference this year involved powering the device.
“All of your electricity has to run off a certain voltage,” Knight said. “This year, we only had nine volts to run off of; last year, we had 12 volts. That makes it more difficult because a lot of things require 12 volts, or more volts than you are given.”
Teams had to figure out how to reduce required voltage to avoid using more than the nine volts allowed, Knight said.
“My dad (Steve Knight) is an electrical engineer; he knows a lot of the electrical stuff, so he helped us a lot,” Knight said. “He helped us a lot on how to create the machine and what actions worked best for it. My dad was a big asset in helping us build this machine.”
The whole point and the challenge, Stoddard said, is for the team to figure out how to successfully do the actions.
“Some of the stuff was like, ‘OK, we are going to Google this’ or ‘We are going to experiment with that,’” Stoddard said. “We were in the lab one day, and we were combining chemicals to see what they did to see how we could use them. Some things worked; some things didn’t.”
Also useful was the knowledge they had gained in their freshman physical science class at Yankton High School, particularly work with the levers, pulleys and IMA (ideal mechanical advantage) calculations, Knight said.
Last year, Knight and Stoddard’s Rube-Goldberg-like device placed 20th nationally. They say they both learned from the experience.
“We learned different techniques and to make things a lot simpler than they were,” Knight said. “The first year we did it, a lot of our actions were very complex and very touchy. The thing that I learned was, make it simple and keep it simple. The less joints that (the device) has, the more likely it is to succeed and complete the action.”
At this time, neither student knows which events they will want to participate in next year, but both agree that they still want to be on the Science Olympiad team.
“Science Olympiad has been such a great part of my life,” Knight said. “I want to do it every year. My goal right now is to be a chemical engineer in college, where I can combine what I’ve learned in chemistry with my love of engineering and do something great with it.”
Stoddard plans to become a neo-natal nurse practitioner.
“I’m planning on taking my problem-solving skills, because I am mainly a builder,” she said. “When anything breaks, I’m always like, ‘What can I do to make it better?’ I plan to take those skills into that field to figure out, ‘OK, what’s making these babies sick? What can I do to help them?’”
To the next class of incoming sixth graders who want to try Science Olympiad for the first time, Stoddard says: It’s hard at first, but keep at it.
“I would recommend every sixth grader to try out Science Olympiad, even if science isn’t your forte,” Knight added. “When I was younger, I didn’t like to step out of my comfort zone and I gave up if something didn’t work right away. Getting myself into Science Olympiad has changed me. (I know) it’s not going to work the first time, but instead of saying, ‘Let someone else figure it out,’ you work on it and figure out that there is a way to do it.”
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