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Trial and error helps students fine tune flying machines, other creations at tech conference

Bryant Stangel, 13, and Bryan Nam, 12, from Mount Nittany Middle School, work on their catapult to launch a marshmallow during the competitive problem solving at the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association's regional conference at Park Forest Middle School on Saturday, January 31, 2015.
Bryant Stangel, 13, and Bryan Nam, 12, from Mount Nittany Middle School, work on their catapult to launch a marshmallow during the competitive problem solving at the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association's regional conference at Park Forest Middle School on Saturday, January 31, 2015. CDT photo

Orville Wright piloted the first powered airplane in 1903 on a North Carolina beach for 20 seconds. Olivia Ackley’s rubber-band propelled, miniature airplane’s first flight Saturday stayed in the air for 78 seconds.

OK, so what if Ackley, a Bedford High School ninth-grader, and her first flight won’t be remembered for centuries?

It was still pretty cool to see.

About 400 middle and high school students from five counties in central Pennsylvania competed in about 60 technology and leadership categories at the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association’s regional conference at Park Forest Middle School.

Ackley made adjustments to the front of her plane to get closer to two minutes as other people took their turns in the flight endurance competition.

“It felt really good, and I was so happy to get it off the ground,” Ackley said. “I was getting around two minutes at school, though. I’m having a little trouble getting altitude.”

State High ninth-grader Caroline Sparrow also competed in the Flight Endurance category, but couldn’t get liftoff.

“I’m in seven competitions, so I’ve got to focus on what’s next,” she said.

Sparrow competed nationally last year, because she placed first in Virginia’s 43rd annual Leadership Conference.

She and two classmates won the state’s Agriculture and Biotechnology category after they gave a presentation on how photobioreactors could be used as a method for bioremediation.

“I love TSA,” Sparrow said. “It’s my favorite thing. Something clicked last year, and I fell in love with it.”

Competitions like Debating Technological Issues and Dragster races were also on tap Saturday.

Mount Nittany Middle School sixth-grader Bryan Nam and seventh-grader Bryant Stangel worked together in the Problem Solving category — they had to figure out how to build a catapult that would launch a marshmallow using wood, rubber bands, Q-tips, tape and a plastic lid.

They had 90 minutes to do it.

“It’s going really well,” Stangel said. “It started to fire down too much, but at least we’ve been getting it to fire. We have to get it to aim straight more and up more, but the tape isn’t very good, so we have to use a bunch of it.”

Across the cafeteria from Nam and Stangel, about 10 students competed in a Structural Engineering category, in which high school students built 16-inch-long light rail systems made of wood to withstand pressure.

Northern Cambria High School students Joel Ludwig and Adam Weiland designed a light rail system with mostly outside, vertical supports. A support that crisscrossed from one side to the other snapped when the rail was under 145 pounds of pressure.

“We’ve done a lot of trial and error since December for this and practiced a lot with different designs, and this one was the best we could come up with,” Weiland said.

“Just seeing them break and explode under the pressure is the funnest part,” Ludwig added.

Ackley, who said she’d like to be a flight instructor or go into the Air Force, got a second shot at a longer flight minutes before the conference’s award ceremony.

She had moved the plane’s wing forward and the front wing mount up about 2 millimeters “for a great angle of attack.”

The small tweaks caused the plane to fly 29 more seconds for the longest flight of the day at 1:49.

“I was so nervous,” Ackley said. “I didn’t know if I made the right adjustments, but I was so happy it took off and got a little higher. I was so happy I could accomplish this.”

The Wright brothers felt the same way when they flew.

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