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Final Frontiers Inspire a New Generation of Engineers

Final Frontiers
The annual Final Frontiers competition, sponsored by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable and the Maryland Space Grant Consortium, took place this past November. Final Frontiers features a series of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, math) contests designed to challenge and inspire students to pursue science-related careers; the program is open to elementary, middle, and high school students. Division lines occur between grades 5-7 and 8-12. Public and private school students of Prince Georges and Montgomery County were invited to participate.

Composed of five events– Aero Car, Shuttle Arm, Lunar Bridge, Newton’s Nightmare, Golf Ball Barrage, and Mystery Event– Final Frontiers presents interactive opportunities for students to show case their strengths as engineers. Although all events pertained to physics, each component required knowledge about specific branches of the subject. For students interested in participating in future years, here’s a quick synopsis of each event.

Aero Car: students construct traveling devices that navigate the greatest distance solely using wind power. Students in grades 5-9 are allowed to supply wind power via an external device, whereas students in grades 10~12 must utilize self-propelled designs. Constraints on material posed further challenge to contestants. This contest reinforces the concept of mechanical energy and outlines the connections between power, work, and efficiency.

Shuttle Arm: Students in this competition had the task of building a mechanical ‘arm’ that could lift 100-gram object to a platform 30 cm above a table. Permitted material was limited to stand paper and tape. This competition calls for the resourcefulness and creativity of students.

Lunar Bridge: One of the few competitions that involve static engineering, the goal was to construct the lightest bridge capable of holding an objecting weighing more than 4.6 kg (about two bricks). However, like the all the competitions listed, students were again limited to specific materials; balsa wood and glue.

Newton’s Nightmare: The only challenge this year that does not require hands-on engineering, Newton’s nightmare is a calculator-allowed test focusing on astrophysics. Students competed in teams of three, and test difficulty and topic range depend on grade level.

Golf Ball Barrage: This challenge required students “to project a golf ball over a barrier and accurately strike a target on the floor”. Students had to build catapults, slings, or anything that fits inside a box that is 1.00 meters x 1.00 m x 1.00 that project a golf ball. Materials were limited to wood, cardboard, paper, rubber bands, bungee cords, tape and string.

Mystery event: as the name suggests, content of this event remains unannounced until the hour of competition. Permissible material and time constraint were among the variables. However, unlike the other events, only one entry was permitted per school, while number of participants was unlimited. This event encouraged teamwork among young engineers.

According to Mr. Jon Goetz, physics teacher at the Richard Montgomery International Baccalaureate program, the Final Frontiers competition not only “encourages students to apply theoretical knowledge into real life situations,” but also a provides a “fun experience for future scientists to run through the engineering process.” In Mr. Goetz’s classes, students divided themselves into groups of three or four and took part of instruction time to work on their assigned projects. This year, students in physics level I were challenged to build a golf barrage, while those in level II constructed shuttle arms. Students received their event assignments a month prior to the competition to allow ample time, though many claim that a good five productive hours were “enough.”

As always, a little competition prompted many teams to craft unique, innovative designs. While most consulted the internet for design ideas, many also made renovations that improved the product’s appearance and functionality. Students made effective use of limited material, including making origami paper gadgets, to increase the inefficiency of their designs. A few days before the county-wide competition, each physics section held live contests to determine the class-wide winner, who then participated in the school-wide showdown, where one would ultimately advance to the Final Frontiers. On the day of the class-wide competition for golf barrage, prototypess ranging from polished, formidable-looking trebuchets to flashy, snail-like catapults brought much mirth and wonder as each showcased its capacity in the trial lanes. In the end, the winning design launched the golf ball only four centimeters away from the designated target.

“I just like doing this stuff,” responded Junior Jon Xia, a class winner of the golf barrage contest, when asked about his motivations for the project, “I guess I’ve been liking it since I was little… putting stuff together to make something useful.”
Milka Piszczek and Suzanne Xu, winners of this year’s lunar bridge contest, devoted great time to developing their prototype. Both girls discovered a passion for science and engineering since young. They found this experience more delightful than demanding. “I thought it was really cool to hold up bricks with just toothpicks, something you don’t see everyday,” says Milka Piszczek, “it’s not really about winning, but more just doing what you really like.”

At a time when MCPS faces potential budget cuts, programs like Final Frontiers fuel an effective method for students for retain quality education for subjects outside the classroom setting. Hands-on, collaborative projects not only cultivate 21st century skills such as communication and critical thinking among students, but also offer a true taste of “fun learning.” As students walked home from the contest site with chocolates, certificates, and a sense of fulfillment, they realized the beauty of math and science without lectures or homework.

Article by Shannon Jin, SAC press correspondent

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