Contest pitting students against JPL engineers draws a vast pool of contenders

Students from near and far had a ball at La Cañada’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory Friday, participating in an annual Invention Challenge that pits innovative youth against JPL engineers and scientists to see who can build the smartest, most efficient machine.

And while the answer may seem like a foregone conclusion, students on some 21 teams smoked their adult counterparts in the 20th annual event, the “Wiffle Ball Loft Contest,” which required competitors to craft a device that could load 10 plastic balls into a plastic tub exactly 6 meters away within one minute.

Devices had to be operated by a single movement, such as cutting a string or pulling a pin, and no human power could be used to start the machine. Winning the top prize were Diamond Bar High School students Megan Ho and Joshua Chou, both 14, whose machine Project Defying Gravity landed eight balls into the tub in 28.94 seconds.

By comparison, Austin DeShong was the top performer among JPLers, sinking three balls in 56.38 seconds.

Last year, a boys team traveled from their school in Tanzania to compete as guests of event founder and JPL employee Paul MacNeal. This year, three international teams — one Tanzanian and two from Ethiopia — competed alongside top performers in a Nov. 18 regional qualifying competition.

Other newcomers included student teams brought by Heart of Los Angeles, a nonprofit group that provides after-school programs for underserved youth. A team from L.A.’s New Village Girls Academy placed third in the regional contest with a device operated by a kicking mechanism.

When it was their turn inside the arena, the machine disappointed with only one ball hitting the bucket. Katherine Garcia, 16, explained how the team built LEGO models and prototypes before selecting their final design.

“I think it wasn’t strong enough, or wasn’t shooting the way we wanted it to go,” she said of the device’s JPL performance.

Team member Kenia Rivera, a senior, guessed they performed 50 or more test runs for the regional competition. By the time they got to the NASA facility Friday, she was a ball of nerves.

“I didn’t want to compete, because I was so nervous,” Rivera said, adding that the challenge was frustrating but also fun and surprising. “I never thought we were going to build something like this.”

Cristian Bonilla, a 16-year-old student at Orthopedic Hospital Medical Magnet High School, competed as part of HOLA’s boys team, which had a fair regional showing but also sunk just one ball Friday. Studying with hopes of becoming a nurse, Bonilla said the program helped him understand how doable engineering can be.

“Being at JPL has brought it into my horizon,” he said. “Even though we didn’t do as great as other people, it feels great to come this far.”

MacNeal said over the years, student teams have begun to beat out the JPL contingent, proving the whole point of the contest.

“Engineering is fun,” he said of the event’s raison d’être. “That’s it.”

sara.cardine@latimes.com

Twitter: @SaraCardine

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