Slingshots, catapults and launchers packed the outside mall area at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on Friday, Dec. 4, as local middle- and high-school students, and JPL employees competed in the annual JPL Invention Challenge.
Twenty-three teams competed to create a device that could launch playground balls into three targets (shaped like the number 18 in honor of the 18th year of the competition) within 60 seconds.
Devices ranged from hand-operated catapults to motorized launchers with laser aiming, but it was some of the simplest designs that performed the best.
After about an hour and a half of competition and tiebreakers for first and third places, Los Angeles High School Team 038 took home the win with a combination catapult-slingshot device they named “IC Fuego.”
Second place went to one of two other teams from Los Angeles High School, and third place went to Lawndale High School.
On what helped them stand out from the competition, the winning team said, “We’re diverse, and we all put our ideas and our collaboration into the design.”
The team members, all high-school seniors, credited their mentor, computer science and algebra teacher Dante Madali, for bringing them together for their first year competing in the challenge.
“I always encourage them to apply what they learn in the classroom, and this is one way to apply their learning,” said Madali. “And they also develop camaraderie and friendship.”
For competition founder Paul MacNeal, a mechanical engineer at JPL, it’s all about showing kids that engineering is fun. “I founded the challenge and kept going with it because it’s so much fun,” he said. “That’s really the point.”
And even after nearly 20 years of competitions, which have challenged competitors to design balloon cars, gliders, tennis-ball launchers and music machines, MacNeal said he still has plenty of ideas ahead.
“I already know what I’m going to do next year,” he said, but curious minds will have to wait until the competition is announced in the spring of 2016.
For more information about the JPL Invention Challenge, visit: