At JPL, teens learn rocket science by crafting toilet paper catapults
Annual Invention Challenge at NASA facility calls on high schoolers to leave the longest trail.
South Pasadena High School's catapult is triggered and a roll of toilet paper flies forward in the JPL Invention Challenge. High school teams propelled tissue rolls catapults. (Tim Berger / Staff Photographer / December 7, 2012)
Yet that was the task Friday at the 15th annual Invention Challenge at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Cañada Flintridge. Student teams built devices designed to launch a roll of toilet paper skyward. The team whose TP roll left the longest tail would emerge the victor.
The 20 finalists, culled from 71 entries from around Southern California, came to the courtyard at JPL Friday to see whose design would win the day.
The teams bore names including “Stanley Streamer,” “Behind on Paperwork” and “Bazinga,” and their members brought an array of trebuchets, catapults and slingshots. Everything from man-sized contraptions made of thick timber and garage-door springs to small launchers made of steel and surgical tubing were on display.
“We're seeing ingenuity using the resources available,” said Paul MacNeal, a JPL structural engineer who started and runs the contest. “We want to get [students] off their butts and have them try things and make mistakes, have them learn being creative is pretty fun.”
The top prize Friday went to Monroe Magnet Middle School from Inglewood, whose catapult launched a toilet paper streamer 35 feet long. Village Christian School from Sun Valley took second with a showing of 33 feet and 11 inches, and South Pasadena High School came in third with a paper trail of 32 feet and one inch.
Raymond Gilmartin, a South Pasadena student who has won a couple of science awards for his work on SUV aerodynamics, said it was a bittersweet showing for the school's freshman science club.
“We've done better in practice,” he said. “We've gotten 45 feet in practice.”
Crescenta Valley High School finished fifth.
MacNeal is so gung-ho for encouraging engineering that he started his own nonprofit, Invent 4 Life, to help spread the invention challenge to new schools.
“A lot of teachers don't know how to teach engineering, so I wanted to introduce the concept of the invention contest to the classroom,” he said.
As Friday's competition saw the handful of entries from JPL employees roundly out-classed by catapults operated by cheering, chanting students, MacNeal saw his plan in action.
“My goal is really to get students to think about a possible career by showing them that engineering is fun,” he said.