MVRHS engineering challenge grand winners named

Results from the April competition pushed Willow Wunsch and Tim Roberts into first place overall.

Maddy Moore, left, and Zach Bresnick weigh fruit on their scale. — Photo by Maria Thibodeau

The “final four” tipped the scales in the engineering challenge at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) on April 9. It was the final competition in which the cumulative scores would determine the grand winners of the yearlong competition.

Four teams, 10 students in all, pitted their wits and problem-solving skills in an intense 45-minute mental marathon to see who could build the most accurate produce scale.

Freshman Elizabeth O’Brien and sophomore David Packer took first place in the April challenge. Willow Wunsch and Tim Roberts, both seniors, triumphed as the female and male grand winners for the year, based on cumulative points earned in the monthly competitions held since last fall. Tim did not participate in last week’s challenge.

In addition to Elizabeth and David, the other teams included senior Maddy Moore and juniors Connor Downing and Zach Bresnick; and juniors Chris Aring and Jared Livingston. Willow teamed up with seniors Kevin Montambault and Andrew Ruimerman.

The engineering challenge program, now in its third year, is the brainchild of chemistry teacher and science department head Natalie Munn. Its goal is to give students an opportunity to experience the work process of an engineering design challenge and to collaborate with one another to get the job done well.

On your mark, get set, think

The April challenge was to build a produce scale using two aluminum pie pans, string, and a six-inch spring hung from a ring stand clamped to a table, and to create a system of measurement, using a ruler and a file folder that could be cut up to create a grid to indicate different weights.

In order to calibrate their homemade scales, students weighed canned goods of assorted weights and sizes with an electronic scale. The students had 45 minutes to complete their scales, which would then be tested by weighing a bag of four apples and a bag of four oranges. Their measurements would be compared with those done using the electronic scale, to see whose homemade scale was the most accurate.

Ms. Munn kicked off the competition at 2:20 pm in her classroom science lab. The students sprang into action, and had their scales built in about 20 minutes. All of the teams used a paper grid behind the spring to mark different weights, but each took a somewhat different approach.

One team used the top of the spring as the reference point for marking various weights, while other teams fashioned a paper tab to attach to the spring, similar to the arrow seen on produce scales that points at the weight.

Ms. Munn suggested that the more items the students weighed, the better off they might be in calibrating their scales. As it turned out, however, Elizabeth and David weighed the fewest items, yet their scale took first place with a total weight difference of only 11 grams, compared with the electronic scale weights. Chris and Jared, who weighed more items than any of the teams to calibrate their scale, came in second with a total difference of 24 grams.

Asked by The Times what she enjoys about the engineering challenge, Elizabeth said, “It’s fun.”

Her teammate David agreed. “Yes, and it’s a good group of kids.”

Although there is some overlap in challenge participants with members of the school’s engineering club, Ms. Munn said, it attracts students with a variety of interests. Jared, for example, missed a few challenges because he had a role in the school play. He and his partner Chris had worked together on several past challenges.

“It can be a bit stressful, but it gives us a chance to be creative,” Jared said. “Because if you look at the projects, none of them are the same. Last time, we had to make brooms out of hay bales. It was really messy because there was hay everywhere, but it was really fun because of the challenge of it.”

Willow has been a regular participant and winner of past challenges since her sophomore year. Although science is not her favorite subject, she said, she kept coming back for the engineering challenge for the same reason as her fellow students: “It’s just something fun to do.”

A mental sport of sorts

The engineering challenge program is classified under school clubs as an extracurricular activity. “There’s no grade; anybody that comes, it’s just because they enjoy it,” Ms. Munn said. “Clubs also fill a niche for some kids who may not be active in sports.”

Another plus of the challenge program, Ms. Munn said, is that it offers students the opportunity for a different type of science-oriented competition from the yearly science fair.

“I like the science fair, but I love that the engineering challenge is thinking on your feet, which is a different skill than planning a project,” she said.

Ms. Munn said she thinks students enjoy that the challenges require no advance preparation. They can just show up and jump in, without fear of the outcome.

“Trying something and being OK with it not working, I love that,” she said. “Whereas a lot of the classroom projects tend to be a little more heavily planned, you can let them find their own way.”

Ms. Munn said the engineering challenge program also has fostered great professional collaboration with several other teachers.

“Seeing the different approaches teams take has been so interesting to me,” science teacher Anna Cotton said. “We do the challenge as an afterschool activity, and it’s a club and it’s fun, but then I think about how it could work in school, too. I get a lot of ideas that I’ve used in my chemistry class.”

Choosing the challenges

When asked where she gets her ideas for the challenges, Ms. Munn said, “Usually I just kind of pick something that’s an everyday object. We try not to do premade lab types of projects, but find something that feels authentic.”

Projects have included making a flashlight during hurricane season, a confetti launcher before New Year’s Eve, noise-reducing headphones, a broom, and a shovel.

“You want something students can do within the time period, and you want something that’s easily measurable, like sound or light output,” Ms. Munn said. “I don’t tend to do a lot of things that I find online because they don’t fit the time slot, or you have to provide too much guidance.”

“The materials are really simple, the concepts are very clear, and the students can mix it up in a lot of different ways to find their own authentic solutions,” computer technology Chris Connors noted.

Year-end results

The competition wrapped up in an hour, and Ms. Munn quickly tallied up the final results. In addition to Willow and Tim, winners (in order by number of total points) included Eli Hanschka and Elizabeth O’Brien, second place; Christopher Aring, Zachary Bresnick, Connor Downing, Russell Shapiro, Maddy Moore, and Ellie Reagan, third place; and Kevin Montambault and Emily Moore, honorable mention.