Students engineer high-tech solutions

February 21, 1993|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,Staff Writer

Space crafts landing at the Baltimore Museum of Industry yesterday didn't herald a new age in interplanetary travel, but they may have launched a few hundred careers in technology.

And even if the number is far smaller than that, students participating in the fourth annual Engineering Challenge competition learned that there is much more to science than theorems, equations and book learning.

There are things such as designing a bridge, a cargo crane or a magnetic levitation train.

This weekend, 135 teams of students from 65 schools throughout Maryland are showing how young minds working together can solve technological problems not unlike those professional engineers face.

"The idea is to make engineering challenges appealing to kids," said Virginia Remsberg, assistant curator of the Key Highway museum. "They can see that problem solving is the most interesting part of engineering."

The event, which continues today, is sponsored by the museum and the Engineering Society of Baltimore. Groups of students, assigned professional mentors, had spent the past three months designing and building devices that were supposed to solve basic problems of applied science.

Yesterday, the machines were put to the test. Middle schoolers raced magnetic levitation trains along 24 feet of track, while high school students saw whose bridge could withstand the most weight without breaking.

The challenge for 100 or so students in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades was to design a Mars landing craft that could slide down a 12-foot inclined rope and strike a rock pile without injuring two eggs that stood in for real astronauts.

Student teams were given a short list of materials they could use, which included a two-liter soda bottle for the craft, egg carton cups for the astronaut seats, and straws or ice cream sticks for landing feet.

Ten students from the Pimlico Elementary School solved the problem perfectly, but not before crossing a few technological hurdles.

They hung a hook from the bottle's spout, a decision that meant the bottle would slide down the rope in a vertical position. But how to cushion the eggs? Simple: The team buffered the eggs with a polyester material that was sure to soften the impact.

But the eggs cracked, anyway.

Imani Simelani, an 11-year-old with a bow-tie topping off the T-shirt of the day, said the problem was that the eggs kept crashing against each other. So the students gave the craft a thicker -- and thus, slower -- hook. And they divided the craft with a cardboard sheet, giving the eggs separate rooms.

Satisfied, the children colored their ship red, white and blue, decorated it with stars and named it the "Pimlico Eggo Cruiser." When the Cruiser's turn came, Imani clasped his hands in mock prayer and watched as a referee hooked the craft to the rope and let go.

It hit bottom with a thud. Imani, the team leader, started removing the eggs. He held one, and then another to the air. Both emerged without a crack, and the crowd roared.

Minutes later, students from the Walter B. Carter Elementary School in East Baltimore succeeded with a radically different design.

The students solved the problem of egg breakage by wedging the seats tightly in place with sticks. Otherwise, they kept their craft hollow. This gave it a slow, almost buoyant ride, and a feathery landing.

Michelle Manning, a fifth grader, said she learned an important lesson: "I learned how to construct things, and I learned that I have to go back to the drawing boards sometime."

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