Four middle and elementary school students crouched low on the gymnasium floor — barely moving — holding their breath as one of their teammates released their homemade mouse trap car down its designated lane marked by brightly-colored tape on the floor.
The contraption took off in a straight line — onlookers began to cheer. Then, abruptly, its front wheels dislodged and it came to a halt. A resounding groan rose from the kids and parents watching from the bleachers Saturday at Soldotna Prep, and the members of team Cheese Wheelers laughed at their own misfortune.
Sixth grader Regan Evans, sixth grader Blake Lewis, fifth grader Zac Buckbee and sixth grader Krystin Yeager had made it to the second heat in this year’s Mind A-Mazes Problem Solving Competition, an annual Kenai Peninsula Borough School District-wide event focused on developing hands-on engineering skills. Facilitated by the district’s Quest Program, the event allows students in the fourth through twelfth grades to team up in groups of three or four and to try complete different engineering challenges each year.
This year’s 44 teams, representing a total of 150-200 students, were challenged to make mouse trap vehicles in a challenge called Rodent Racers, said Coordinator Brian Bailey, a teacher in the Nikiski Middle-High School Quest Program. The kids had about five to six weeks to design, build and test their devices before letting them loose in the competition.
“The main objective is not necessarily just to raise a whole bunch of engineers,” Bailey said. “But it’s to allow kids to work on problem-solving challenges with teammates where they have to work on communication skills, they have to work on just adapting their thinking as they go, showing flexibility in their thinking, so that after one design doesn’t work they can modify it. It’s a lot of social skills with getting along together.”
Flexibility is a concept the Cheese Wheelers took to heart throughout the weeks leading up to Saturday’s meet. The team members said they had to rebuild twice before they perfected their mouse trap car, which made it to the second heat after traversing the full length of the track and hitting the elusive metal can placed at the end.
“(For) the first one we found a video and did it to where we could do it, because we didn’t have all the supplies and things they had,” Buckbee said.
“It only went like half an inch,” Lewis chimed in.
“So then we broke it,” Buckbee explained.
“Purposefully,” Evans added in an undertone.
The team brainstormed together to design their second car, then moved on to a third model in the hopes of increasing their speed.
“I built a mouse trap car last year in fourth grade and it was like this but much larger for distance, so we had the idea of shrinking it down and getting smaller wheels and a bigger axel because that helps with speed,” Buckbee said.
It’s when the team ran the device in the second heat to add points for speed to their day’s total score that the mouse trap car fell short and its wheels fell off. It was a learning experience, they said. Yeager, who had never built a mouse trap car before, said she’s glad she’ll know how to build one in the future.
After the junior and intermediate groups of teams ran their devices, they all gathered once more on the gymnasium floor to participate in a spontaneous engineering challenge, called Tremendous Towers, for which they had no prior practice or information. The teams, who were joined by a few adults who got the extra challenge packets, had limited time to create the tallest tower they could out of popsicle sticks and molding clay, while still making sure it could hold up a weight at the end.
The spontaneous challenge is worth 25 percent of a team’s total score, Bailey said, while the long-term challenge makes up the rest. Students tend to enjoy spontaneous challenges even outside of the competition while they’re in school, he said, because they allow them to come up with creative solutions and pick their own materials. Both the long-term and the spontaneous problems have to be crafted so that they challenge kids all the way from fourth grade through high school, he said.
“I just like they way that they work together and celebrate improvements, work through the difficulties of just conflicts that come up in terms of one person’s idea verses another person’s idea,” Bailey said. “And it’s always difficult. It’s never a challenge that, you know, ‘We got it done in a week or two. Everything’s working fine.’ It’s not supposed to be that easy and it never is, so that continuous testing, trying to see what’s predictable in your results and what’s not predictable, and when one problem is fixed it might lead to another problem and you’re trying to fix things as you go that way.”
The members of team Caribou Creators from Kalifornsky Beach Elementary — fifth graders Nicholas Rackley, Avery Ciufo and Abriella Werner — learned the importance of adjusting along the way in the weeks leading up to the meet as well. Their mouse trap vehicle made it all the way down the track and hit the can in the first heat, and during the second heat when they were being tested for speed, it raced down the course in 10 seconds flat.
It took some rethinking and redesigning to get to that stage, the students said.
“It was really fun to make it, but the first time we did it, it went four feet and then we had to completely redo the car,” Ciufo said. “And then we tested it on Friday, and it went the 21 feet and hit the can.”
Even though the team practiced with the competition distance and the coveted can, some were more confident than others when it came to Saturday’s meet.
“I was pretty nervous,” Rackley said with a laugh.
Once the technical kinks were worked out, Werner had plenty of fun making their car look its best by using food coloring and other decorations.
“And I dyed my fingers green,” she said, holding up hands that were spotted with color.
Teams from each of the two divisions are awarded first, second and third-place overall, Bailey said. There is also a first-place award for the spontaneous challenge for each division and a judges choice award for each.
In the junior division, the Rapid Racers from Sterling Elementary won judges choice, and the Caribou Creators took first overall. In the intermediate division, the judges choice pick was the team Vinyl Girls from Nikiski Middle-High School, and the team Twenty-One Mice from Hope School took first overall. More results will be published as they come in.