It could be called the problem-solving Olympics.
Using everyday items such as plastic foam lunch trays and Popsicle sticks, tech-savvy high school students were challenged to build devices that could keep a golf ball moving for 10 seconds before dropping it into a red plastic cup.
Dozens of teams fashioned Rube Goldberg-style contraptions made up of ramps, chutes and slides as part of a Technology Student Association regional competition Friday at Pittsburgh Technical Institute in North Fayette.
About 350 high school students from 13 districts participated in 34 competitions in fields such as design, manufacturing, software development and engineering. Another 170 middle school students attended a second round of events Monday.
Winners, to be announced later, will be eligible to compete in April at the state level at Seven Springs and vie for a spot at the national competition in June in Orlando. State-level competitors also may be eligible to receive an annual $6,000 partial tuition scholarship from Pittsburgh Technical Institute, a two-year career college.
In the Technology Problem Solving competition -- which involved the golf ball task -- North Allegheny juniors Alexa Swihart, 16, and Shelby Ross, 17, built a foam board ramp with walls resembling a pinball maze. Shelby said they had to work as a team to adjust the wall angles and get the golf ball moving at just the right speed.
"It's definitely problem-solving," Shelby said. "It teaches you to think on your feet."
Classmate Alexander Crellin, an aspiring mechanical engineer, said the golf ball challenge forced him to be efficient and make do with limited resources.
"It's, like, the definition of working in engineering," he said.
South Fayette senior Ryan Eberle said that at the beginning of the challenge, "the idea in your head is perfect, almost."
But, his partner, Matt Leger, added, "making it work is another thing."
Participants are members of the Technology Student Association, a national nonprofit devoted to teaching and providing leadership opportunities in technology, innovation, design, engineering, math and science.
Many school districts have an extracurricular club that prepares student members for association events. Ambridge Area High School goes a step further by offering three years of credited courses based on the Technology Student Association curriculum.
Ambridge Area -- one of the program's six founding districts in 1978 -- sent 70 students to the competition Friday, compared to 45 last year, teacher Dennis DeAngelis said.
"Just like kids are recognized in band, just like kids are recognized on the field, we want students to be recognized in technology," he said.
Throughout the day, students built and raced cars on a track, redesigned house models as part of an architectural renovation event, delivered off-the-cuff speeches, debated technical issues, compared careers and built models of lightweight bridges able to hold heavy loads.
"This gives [students] the avenue to compete and see how they do against other kids," Fox Chapel Area technology teacher Ken Grimm said.
Participating school districts were Ambridge Area, Avonworth, Blackhawk, Canon-McMillan, Charleroi, Fox Chapel Area, Greensburg-Salem, Hampton, Mohawk, Monessen, North Allegheny, Pine-Richland and South Fayette.
Brian Garlick, technology teacher at South Fayette, said the annual competition gives his students an opportunity to interact with others in the region.
"It gives kids a lot of confidence to know they can compete against larger schools," he said.
Jacob Griffith, 16, president of the Ambridge Area chapter, said he built a drag-racing car from balsa wood, with the challenge of making it aerodynamic even though the wheels had to be on the outside of the body.
He also competed in the golf ball event and the bridge-building competition that stressed the concepts of structural engineering.
"This whole conference, it directly mirrors what you would see in any college," said Jacob, a junior interested in engineering and physics. "You can relate it to any career."
Alyson Hess, 17, a senior who is president of the Fox Chapel Area chapter, said she wants to enter the pharmacy field and participates in the Technology Student Association for the teamwork, leadership and communications experiences.
Elizabeth Bianchini, 16, a Fox Chapel Area junior, said the association and the competition give her a taste of real-world tasks in architecture and engineering, her fields of interest. She has a talent for understanding math and visualizing 3-D angles -- skills that helped her in the technical sketching event, where she hand-drafted a tool from alternate perspectives.
South Fayette sophomore Brooke Ley, 15, said she enjoys math and problem-solving and would like to work in the engineering field.
"There's a big lack of girls in the STEM ... field," Brooke said, referring to science, technology, engineering and math. "So I like how a lot of girls are getting into this field."
Andrea Iglar, freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published January 17, 2013 10:00 AM