A scientific way to spend the day

The Baltimore Sun

Julio Valcarcel III built a self-propelled machine, a remote-controlled robot and a wooden catapult for competitions yesterday at the Maryland State Science Olympiad at the Johns Hopkins University. He is 13.

In an event dubbed "The Scrambler," the Thurmont Middle School eighth-grader and his seventh-grade teammate Morgan Smith launched the self-propelled device from a ramp toward a wall 9 meters away. It had to start and stop on its own, without cracking a raw egg attached to the contraption's nose (hence the name of the event). They nearly went the distance -- and maintained the egg.

Earlier, Julio had partnered with Sam Swanson, a sixth-grader at the Frederick County school, for the robo-cross and trajectory contests. Unfazed by a judge ticking off the three-minute time allotment, Julio deftly guided their robot as it picked up and carried several small objects. Then the teammates shot tennis balls from their catapult and hit their targets dead-on.

"It's a great way to spend a Saturday," Julio said.

In events that spread across Hopkins' Homewood campus, about 200 students on teams from nine counties and Baltimore City tested their engineering and scientific mettle.

"This program is the nation's largest team-based science competition," said Ryan Michela, technology events coordinator. "It touches on every branch of science."

Julio's Thurmont team took first place in the middle school division and will represent Maryland in the nationals May 31 at George Washington University. Walter Johnson High School in Montgomery County won the high school division.

While Julio competed with a variety of machines, his younger sister Victoria, a sixth-grader, competed as a disease detective. "We had to ID causes of diseases and talk about anatomy," she said.

Sarah Picanso, an eighth-grader at Mount Airy Middle School in Carroll County, donned a white lab coat for the medical competition -- defining an outbreak and taking steps to combat the disease. She also enjoyed Science Crime Busters, tracking down a dognapper with a series of forensic clues. "I started doing this for extra credit, but I have really started liking it," Sarah said.

In White Athletic Center, Chris Seders and his teammates from New Life Christian School in Frederick practiced for the balloon launch by a glider to a helium-filled balloon. Slowly unrolling a ball of twine, they guided the balloon to the ceiling of the gymnasium. Then, with a slight tug, they jerked the glider free and allowed it to fall.

The team whose glider stayed aloft longest would win.

Chris' glider, assembled Friday night, was made of straws, construction paper and Saran Wrap. To launch their craft, he and teammate Cody Horn reluctantly settled for a singing Hannah Montana balloon, the only large one that Chris' mother and science teacher could find.

At the last minute, they were saved from the embarrassment of this "girly" balloon entry when the judges gave them permission to switch from the deflating Hannah model to a better-inflated "Happy Birthday" model. The Hannah balloon was still crooning "The Best of Both Worlds" when Chris left it tethered in the bleachers so he could deal with serious glider engineering matters. "The hardest thing is to get the glider to float," the sixth-grader said. "You have to get the balloon as close to the ceiling as you can to give it altitude."

"We need more of these events," said Bonnie Roynestad, Chris' aunt. "It teaches them teamwork and communication and gets them out from the video games and TV. They are having a blast -- and this really makes them use their brains."

Organizers pattern the events after athletic contests, only with players vying in technology trials, science labs and written tests.

"This gives them exposure to a college campus, shows them cross-disciplines in science and helps them connect to each other so they can figure out what to do," said Melissa Hartley, a Mount Airy Middle teacher. "It also teaches them to follow directions and really pay attention to detail."

It also promotes ingenuity, said John Beck and Michael Tontchev, eighth-graders at Roland Park Middle School in Baltimore, which won second place.

To build their wooden car, dubbed RP1, for the Scrambler contest, they tied rubber bands around the rims of four CDs to give the ersatz tires traction. Their braking system: a wing nut on a threaded axle.

On their first try, they braked too soon. They recalculated and nearly made the wall with an intact egg. Their total distance from two runs put them over the top.

"We kinda had to do this project, but then, we wanted to," said Michael. "Robots and machines can be fun."


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