Costa Mesa High School junior Nancy Le had two minutes to twist three different-sized nuts and bolts together using only a robotic prosthetic arm that she and three teammates had spent three months building.
It was one of several tasks the students had to perform for the Statewide Prosthetic Arm Competition last month at UC Irvine.
As Nancy wore the arm for the nuts and bolts task — the first of the competition — the motors began to malfunction, preventing the arm's claw from closing all the way. When her two minutes were up, she had twisted only two nuts and bolts together. She thought her team's chance of winning was over.
But to her surprise, the judges announced at the end of the tournament that she and her teammates — senior Keiser Ruiz, junior Sarah Catania and senior Sylvia Catania — had earned first place through their scores in other tasks.
The win gives the team the chance to represent California in the MESA USA National Engineering Design Competition from June 22 to 25 in Ogden, Utah.
MESA — Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement — is an organization that provides classes and programs to schools.
Costa Mesa's team qualified for the May 14 state contest after winning a preliminary tournament in February and a regional competition in April, beating out hundreds of other teams along the way.
At UCI, the students faced off against Los Angeles High School, Stagg High School of Stockton and Rio Mesa High School of Oxnard.
The four teams had to wear their robotic prosthetic arms to complete seemingly simple tasks, such as picking up a pencil on one end of a table and carrying it to the other end or grabbing a bean bag out of a bucket and tossing it onto squares on the floor.
Teams also were scored on display boards, technical papers and speeches they prepared about their inventions.
"It can be challenging because you need to have a device that can perform under various conditions," said Juanita Muñiz-Torres, interim executive director of California's MESA Statewide Office, located in Oakland. "The [Costa Mesa team] showed a lot of confidence, but also a positive attitude so that when their device did malfunction, their positivity allowed them to go forward and not give up."
Through the MESA club at Costa Mesa High and their own research, the team learned how to build and program the prosthetic arm, which is made of two 3-D-printed fingers, motors, a circuit board, connecting wires and a tennis ball container that the students slip their own arms into.
When the team members started building the arm in October, they met about twice a week for as long as three hours.
Nancy said one of the biggest challenges was getting the motors attached to the two fingers to move at the same time, which enables the claw to close.
In preparation for the state tournament, the team often met after school to practice some of the tasks. The week before the competition, the students met every day for about six hours to perfect the arm's functions.
"[The team] has worked endlessly," said Marya Ras, the students' physics teacher at Costa Mesa High. "It's amazing to see how much time they've put in for this and their ability to overcome setbacks."
The national competition will bring together the top teams from eight states: California, Arizona, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah and Washington.
The seniors in the Costa Mesa group, Keiser and Sylvia, will miss their June 23 graduation to attend the tournament. But both believe that representing the state will be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
"We were definitely looking forward to graduation, but we won't ever get another chance to do something like this," Sylvia said. "It's worth a shot."
Since they're missing the graduation ceremony, the two will be recognized at Costa Mesa High's Senior Awards Night on June 21 at the Performing Arts Center on campus.
Alex Chan, firstname.lastname@example.org