Students take a swing at JPL's 'Invention Challenge'

Local students channeled their inner Tiger Woods on Friday at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in a competition to hit a hole-in-one in record time.

The annual “Invention Challenge” called on middle and high school students, as well as JPL employees, to build a contraption that would hit a golf ball into a hole located about 5 feet away.

The teams used materials such as vacuum-cleaner extensions, springs, mouse traps and angled pipes that dropped the ball with a “plop” into the hole. 

They used sliders, pendulums and even compressed air to send the ball flying. Spectators gathered around the courtyard at the La Cañada Flintridge facility, letting out “oohs” and “aahs” when teams missed or hit the target.

Each team only had one shot to launch the ball and many were successful. But the winner was determined by speed.

Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles won first place with a time of 0.60 seconds. Other prizes were handed out for factors such as creativity and weight.

Crescenta Valley High School, one of two local teams to compete, was honored with the distinction of using the heaviest device to hit a hole-in-one.

Kyle Willcox, a 16-year-old member of the school's team, said the device weighed around 176 pounds.

But he said the team was focused on accuracy, and they achieved just that. The ball was sent straight into the target with a launcher that used a slider design without any bouncing.

“I'm happy we made it this far,” he said. “It was extremely enjoyable.”

The team from Glendale High School used a more risky method, but it didn't achieve the results they wanted.

Their device used air pressure to send a ball into the air. The shot fell just short of the target.

Yishu Dai, 18, said the team had success with the device in the regional competition, where they placed third.

Still, she said, the high school hopes to enter the challenge every year going forward. It was the first year Glendale High competed.

Now in its 16th year, the challenge began as an event for JPL employees. Students were eventually invited to participate, taking part next to engineers, scientists and other workers.

The challenge is different each year. Last December, teams competed to launch the longest roll of toilet paper. Alan DeVault, a retired JPL software engineer, said the students have beaten the JPL teams in recent years.

This year was no different.

DeVault won a trophy on Friday for the fastest goal by a JPL team. Still, his time of 0.62 seconds was a pinch slower than the winning high school team.

DeVault has competed in about 12 challenges over the years. He said he usually spends a month or two thinking about how to find a solution to the problem.

“It's fun to actually build something,” he said. “This contest gives me the chance to do that.”


Follow Tiffany Kelly on Google+ and on Twitter: @LATiffanyKelly.


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