LEHMAN TWP. – Balsa-wood gliders swooped over robotic contraptions performing simple tasks in the Penn State Wilkes-Barre gymnasium as parents, teachers and competitors watched from bleachers that were littered with inventions awaiting their debut.
With college students away on spring break, more than 1,000 high school and middle school students from 50 Northeastern Pennsylvania schools swarmed around the campus Wednesday with their gliders, handmade instruments and robots during the 2013 Northeast Regional Science Olympiad.
Students competed for best engineering designs and superior knowledge of the sciences.
Some students were challenged in question-and-answer settings, prompted to identify minerals, plant names and constellations in writen tests. But the all-day flurry of activity happened out in the halls and open areas as students exhibited their book-learning put to practice with creative, homemade devices.
Dallas 10th-grade students Eric Davies and Tom Ketchner, returning Olympians and robot designers, had just finished their robotic arm demonstration and said, in hindsight, their design was probably a little top-heavy.
Built from a kit of metal pieces much like Erector Set parts, a handful of gears and small motors, their robot had to meet strict dimension specifications and, at the command of radio controls, move nails, ping-pong balls and short PVC pipes into small containers.
Ketchner said they built their robot at school whenever they had the time.
“We built this during lunch, basically,” Ketchner said.
Across the room, Wyoming Area High School 11th-grade twin sisters, Gabrielle and Danielle Spagnuolo, watched excitedly as their balsa-wood glider spiraled down from the rafters in precise, expanding circles.
“That was our best time ever,” one exclaimed to the other as they returned the fragile miniature plane to its box.
Their glider had hung in the air for 19 seconds as opposed to the usual 16 seconds before touching down – a time that gave the sisters a competitive edge.
Athens Area High School volunteer glider coach John Clapp was supervising the event and said the two were serious contenders for his own students.
The sisters confirmed that Athens High usually dominates construction competitions.
The two are not rookie flyers. Danielle and Gabrielle have competed in other gliding events. They use kits to build their gliders, but Danielle said it takes a lot to keep the plane parts fitting just right.
“Building technique is different for every one,” Danielle said, with the slightest jarred landing or a draft during flight threatening to throw off the glider’s balance.
Among other things, gliders were judged on hang time, smooth transitions from launch to free fall, and their ability to maintain a descending spiral.
Elsewhere, the gym’s racquetball court had been converted to a construction zone.
In an event called the boomilever, students attached structures resembling half of a suspension bridge to a wall. A challenge in intelligent weight displacement, students had to engineer their boomilevers to support 15 kilograms of sand dispensed slowly into a bucket hung from the end of the structure.
One contest overseer muttered that most students expect their boomilever to break at some point and only one team had seen their construction support the full weight so far.
Holding the pieces of their collapsed boomilever, Pittston Area sophomore Eric Sklanka and senior Suraj Pursnani said maybe they should have used thicker topside support arms.
Pursnani said the weight of their structure played into their final score so they were trying to keep it light.
Sklanka said, though their boomilever collapsed, they are still in the running to be placed. He said now he knows what to do better next time.
“This is our first time,” Sklanka said. “You learn from your mistakes.”
Down at the campus science building, the robot engineers, Davies and Ketchner, were waiting for their turn at another event called the gravity car.
For this one, students had to design a vehicle and a ramp to supply propulsion. The car had to glide straight and then stop promptly after a distance undisclosed to the students beforehand.
Davies said Dallas School District supports their efforts by providing a place to build and test their projects and transportation to the event, but not supplies, leaving them to scrounge around for materials.
He said they used wood left over from a storage shed project for the ramp structure and asked a local flooring company to donate linoleum for its surface.
CDs wrapped in deflated balloons served as wheels and most of their car was made of K’NEX construction toy parts.
As is the language of scientists around the world, the Olympians had to complete all their designs using the metric system.
Davies said he likes the metric better than the English measurement system, but it made buying materials interesting.
“When I was buying wood for the ramp, I was like, ‘I need something 30 centimeters by 10 centimeters,’ and (the clerk) just looked at me like I was insane,” Davies said.
At the end of the day, the Spagnuolo sisters took second place to Athens Area High, missing the top spot by 3.43 seconds of glider hang-time.
Because only one school from each region can take first place for the day based on cumulative points earned, Abington Heights Middle School will go on to states next month to represent the region in the Division B competitions and Athens Area High School will compete in the high-schoolers’ Division C.