Yakima, WA: Tennis balls bounced and rolled, and a few landed in buckets, as about 230 middle and high school students tested their versions of prosthetic arms Thursday. The balls were part of a distance/accuracy test to see how well the prosthetics could pick up and toss a ball.
Not well, it turns out. So when one of the Sunnyside High School teams managed to sink three tennis balls, a cheer went up from onlookers. They were participating in the annual Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement Day competition at Washington State University Tri-Cities.
Kits containing everything from string to duct tape to plastic cylinders were sent in February to five Tri-City and Yakima Valley school districts. Students enrolled in the MESA programs at their schools divided into teams of three or four and spent hours designing and redesigning prosthetic arms.
“MESA National changes out the competitions every three years. This year, they decided to do something cost-effective, yet relating to the real world,” said Neiri Carrasco, MESA director for Pasco-Sunnyside-Granger. “They gave the students a real problem to solve.”
Schools held their own competitions to send their best teams to Thursday’s event.
“The kits included instructions, but we made some changes to them,” said Cynthia Ramirez, 14, an eighth grader at Ochoa Middle School in Pasco.
Pointing at a pink shoelace that opens and closes the grippers on her team’s design, Ramirez said they used the string from the kit, then tried fishing line. “They kept breaking,” Ramirez said.
Her team added tape to the fingertips for more traction, but found it didn’t work. Dollops of hot glue, cooled, improved the grip. Ramirez said her team learned a lot about engineering and design, teamwork and friendship, and how to keep on going — even when something doesn’t work — and not give up in frustration.
Chiawana High School junior Christopher Cruz, 17, said his team also resorted to hot glue on the “fingers.”
“What materials we used made a big difference. The fingers are made of metal coat hangers but they were too skinny and slippery,” Cruz said. They tried wrapping them in tape, but it too was slick.
“We learned to pay attention to the science behind friction to improve the grip,” Cruz said. High school students also competed in a dexterity contest. One member from each team, using their prosthetic arm, had to pick up three bolts of different sizes and put them into the appropriate hole in a board. They were able to steady the board with their free hand. The hard part was picking up the nuts and screwing them onto the bolts.
They only had two minutes to do it. Almost two hours into the dexterity contest, only one student had managed to do two bolts.
“This contest really points out that you may be able to hold things with a prosthetic arm, but not have the strength to grip and turn the nut,” said MESA volunteer John Olson, a Bechtel engineer. “When you think of all the day-to-day activities we do that are so similar, it really brings home how difficult it would be to live with only one functioning hand.”
Middle school students tested their prosthetic arms at object relocation tables. Their challenge: Get five different items — ranging from a liter of water to combination locks to composition books — into a plastic crate. More ended up on the floor than in the crate. But it did not dampen the enthusiasm.
“The students get really excited to see their hard work come to life,” said Amy Carrasco, a MESA board member and director of education at Kadlec Regional Medical Center. Thursday’s top teams — two middle schools and two high schools — will go on to the state MESA competition May 17-18 on the Microsoft campus in Redmond.
The winning high school teams:
- Chiawana High School, team name CHS Arm, Pasco: Melanie Cantu, Norma Cisneros, Ramon Chavarria III.
- White Swan High School, team name Bat Gang: Hugo Barajas, Rodrigo Alvarado, Stefani Nanez.
The winning middle school teams:
- Harrison Middle School, team name Limbless Men, Sunnyside: Artemio Paz, German Romo, Gustavo Contreras, Alexis Dominquez.
- Toppenish Middle School, team name Strongarm: Carlos Arellano, Wilfredo Cervantes, Issac Valladares, Marcos Sanchez.