MESA engineering competition an arms race

Annual event offers students hands-on chance to apply textbook learning to designing, building devices

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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On Saturday morning, a time when most adolescents would prefer to be in bed, about 100 junior and senior high school students brimming with enthusiasm and wielding prosthetic arms gathered at Firstenburg Student Commons at Washington State University Vancouver for a regional engineering competition.

They chanted “go team, go!” as they tested the prosthetic arms they carefully designed and built to move small objects across tables and toss bean bags across boards.

“It’s our big annual event,” said Debbie Blas, the Southwest Washington director for Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement, or MESA.

MESA is a national program meant to bolster science education in public schools with hands-on programs. Blas said the program also is intended to help diversify science and technology professions by encouraging minorities and female students to consider careers in the field.

“They build; they design,” Blas said. “The whole point is to connect textbook learning to real world stuff.”

At the event, students from six junior and senior high schools in the Vancouver and Evergreen school districts clad in blue MESA T-shirts squared off to see who had designed and built the best prosthetic arm from materials purchased with an $80 budget.

Zinnia Hawthorn, Brittney Meyer and Nicholas Murray made up a team of seventh-graders from Wy’east Middle School.

“It took us two weeks to design it but the building took a month,” said Meyer of the prosthetic arm her team built using a cardboard shipping tube that fits around the user’s arm. The team attached a plastic claw to the end of the tube that clamps shut when the user flexes their forearm. To make the claw functional, the team had to program a small computer powered by four AA batteries. For a finishing touch, they wrapped their device with special Duck Tape imprinted with a mustache pattern.

“Nicholas tested it a whole lot throwing things at us,” Meyer said, and the three giggled.

At the event, teams gathered around tables as students were timed while they used their arms to pick up a notebook, CD, ladle, pencil, plastic bottle and other objects across a table into a box. Another part of the competition involved using the arms to toss bean bags across a board.

Susie Landa, a junior at Fort Vancouver High School, said her team built its arm using a plastic water bottle as a sleeve. She said they initially built the arm’s claw to open and shut using a foot-operated switch but changed the design after it didn’t work well.

“It actually turned out to be really difficult,” she said.

The students engaged in the program learned other lessons as well. Emma Rader, another seventh-grader at Wy’east, built a wooden hand that opened and closed with a set of strings she said was inspired by “Pinocchio.” Although the arm didn’t meet the technical requirements for the competition, she was given more time to work on it. Joe Boken, her science teacher, said that she could come out ahead in the competition by producing a technical report on her arm.

“We use the word ‘failure’ in a positive way,” he said.