JPL Invention Challenge: Students, Pros, Wiffle Balls

Catapults
and leaf-blowers were among the many innovative
devices built by students for
the 2017 Invention Challenge, an
annual engineering competition at NASA’s Jet
Propulsion
Laboratory, Pasadena, California.

Middle
schools and high schools were represented from across
the greater Los Angeles area.
Three teams even required
passports, with students coming from Tanzania and
Ethiopia.

This
year’s “Wiffle Ball Loft Contest” required competitors to
create a
device to launch up to 10 wiffle balls into a plastic
tub located 19 feet, 8
inches (6 meters) away within a
one-minute time allotment. The challenges were
many: launching
at the best angles with the varying wind directions; making
sure the device was initiated by only one method; and even
preventing the
wiffle ball from breaking, which would result
in disqualification.

The
winners were from Southern California: “Project Defying
Gravity” from
Diamond Bar High School; “Cre8tive” from South
East High School in
Southgate; and “The Lizards” from Lawndale
High School.

Paul
MacNeal, a mechanical systems engineer at JPL, created
the Invention Challenge
20 years ago to inspire students to
pursue careers in engineering — and have
fun in the process.
MacNeal said the event has influenced previous participants
to
recreate the competition in their local communities — as far
away as
Istanbul.

“When
I was in high school, I thought being involved with
NASA-JPL was unattainable,”
MacNeal said. “I wanted to change
that and inspire competitors to pursue
engineering careers.”

Yasin
Giray, an Ethiopian volunteer teacher who brought the
Ethiopian team to JPL,
said Africa generally does not have
enough opportunities for his students to
show their skills in
the science and technology fields.

“We
encountered some difficulties along the way. Ethiopia does
not sell the wiffle
balls used in the contest, so we practiced
with balls made of a different
plastic,” Giray said. “We could
only practice when we arrived in the U.S.,
but we knew we had
to take this opportunity.”

Diamond
Bar High School’s first place team, “Project Defying
Gravity,” was a
team of two. They developed a device
elastically powered through a surgical
tube calibrated to use
multiple strengths to adjust to changing winds.

“A
specific gelato container is the perfect size to fit a
wiffle ball. So, we ate
a lot of ice cream to use them in our
device,” Megan Ho, one of the two
team members said. “I feel
elated that we won. This competition has made
me want to
pursue engineering more — specifically mechanical
engineering.”

Kenneth
Chew, from the “PACKS” team representing Diamond Bar,
was so inspired
by JPL missions and launches that he brought
lucky peanuts for his team to eat
before launch – a JPL
tradition before major mission events. He even designed a
mission logo inspired by JPL mission patches.

Caltech
in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.

News Media Contact

Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-393-2433
andrew.c.good@jpl.nasa.gov

Written by: Elyssia Widjaja

2017-211

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