Several classes of Maryvale Preparatory Middle School students were given two pieces of foam tube, a roll of masking tape and five red Solo cups Wednesday afternoon — then asked to build a roller coaster.
The unique challenge was part of an annual activity at Maryvale, when engineers from Northrup Grumman Corp. bring an unusual challenge to the students at the Brooklandville school to stimulate their interest in engineering,
"I like to give the girls the exposure to see another woman in engineering, because it is still a rarity," said Laura Lam, a senior quality engineer at Northrup Grumman who participated in the activity for the sixth straight year March 13. "Each year, they seem just as excited as the year before. I love coming here because they're so excited about it."
The students were split up into small groups, given the supplies and 30 minutes to construct a roller coaster track for a marble, with point values assigned to certain challenging features. Teams earned two points for a successful vertical loop on a track, five points for sideways spirals and two points for building a structure that would land the marble into a cup at the end.
In the competition's early stages, students were unclear as to how to approach the challenge. A group including Erin Shaffrey, 13, of Parkton, struggled to keep the marble on the foam tube on the sharper inclines, and worked to try and rectify it.
Many groups, including that of Kate Carroll, 12, of Towson, and Chloe Baker, 11, of Loch Raven Village, strove for originality as the competition progressed.
"We wanted to be different," Chloe said. "A lot of people have done the wall, and we wanted to do something besides the wall."
Instead of taping the tube to the wall so that it hung down, the girls made a tall structure by stacking the plastic cups and created a freestanding structure that wrapped around the cups and ultimately dropped the marble into the final cup.
The group also put its two half-circle tubes together to enclose the track and ensure the marble would make it the whole way down.
"It's not like the other ones on the wall," Kate said. "Since everyone else was doing the same thing, we wanted to be unique."
The group's originality didn't earn it a victory, however. That honor went to two teams, who tied with 11 points.
One winning team was comprised of Allona Henson, 13, of Baltimore; Kristina Lysik, 12, of Timonium; Olivia Hynson, 13, of Reisterstown; Katherine McKenzie, 12, of Howard County; Claire Kotula, 13, of Towson, and Destiny Hargrove, 13, of Towson.
That team began its roller coaster high against the wall, allowing the marble to build momentum before hitting two small loops and a spiral at the bottom of the track. The spiral led right into the cup — low-risk, high-reward decision that gave seven points to the team.
The other winning team included Kayla Williams, 12, of Baltimore; Sydney Logan, 13,, of Owings Mills; Gracie Marzullo, 13 of Ruxton; Elisa Rodriguez, 13, of Sparks; and Lindsay Armstrong, 12, of Baldwin.
That group changed up its design, which also included two loops higher in the design and a spiral lower in the track, with about 10 minutes left in the building phase.
"We were trying to do as much as possible, but it didn't work the way we previously did it," Elisa said. In their initial design, the girls went for a sharp incline that proved too steep and sent the marble flying off the track and across the gym. Their second design was parallel to the wall and much more effective.
Lam and quality engineer Christina Lloyd began the afternoon with a short primer on what it means to be a female engineer and how the middle school girls could prepare themselves for the job. She said less than 10 percent of all engineers were women, but told that the variety of the job, potential travel and good pay made it an appealing vocation, among other things.
Lam suggested the girls study science and math, but also remain well rounded in their studies and work on communication skills. Lastly, she said the students needed to be comfortable with technology — a skill Maryvale fosters with its program that requires every student use an iPad.
Melissa Conaway, a middle school science teacher, was glad to see some her physics students so engaged while discussing the concept of momentum.
"They love to build things," she said. "They're very enthusiastic about science and math."