The four O’Neill Middle School eighth graders watched eagerly as their contraption — a pneumatic lifter built so recently the glue was just barely dry — inched in an arc along with its small payload.
The machine posted mixed results, enough for nine points in the Fluid Power Challenge, held Oct. 26 at Harper College. It was a better showing than the contest’s many lifters that did not move at all, but still short of first place.
The O’Neill students were ready to walk away empty handed when judges handed them another — and arguably more rewarding — prize.
With their diligent preplanning and in-depth schematics, the team of four earned the Excellence in Design award.
It was a recognition of five weeks of trial and error, collaboration and trouble-shooting that went into their machine.
“We had to build the lifter and the base all by experimentation,” team member Jeremy Confield said. “It took us five weeks to figure out what we were doing.”
Their project kicked off one Friday in late September, when the students attended a workshop at Harper College in Palatine. After a crash course in fluid power, the students returned to O’Neill with a kit of building materials and tools.
They spent the next five weeks designing, building and refining a machine built of wood, glue and fluid-filled syringes.
But all the work was just preparation. On the morning of the contest, all the teams had to build their machines from scratch with just their own designs to lead them.
But so thorough was the O’Neill students’ preplanning that they finished construction with about 45 minutes to spare, team member Kayla Carlson said, while other times worked down to the wire.
Much of the credit also goes to the efficiency they forged after five weeks of putting their minds to different dilemmas and problems.
“We split up the work,” team member Chandana Sooranahalli said, “so we had everybody working on the process.”
The advanced planning meant the team could go into the contest with a little added confidence.
“We knew we could build it,” said Tom Scheffel, 13. “We just weren’t sure how far we could get it.”
The students worked under the supervision of O’Neill science teacher Meg Van Dyke, but the contest rules calls for zero adult guidance. This was all the students’ work, Van Dyke said.
The four teammates have another engineering project coming up next semester. They’re ready to get started, too, and apply the lessons they learned this time: do the research ahead of time, split up the tasks and don’t get frustrated. Plus — and always a good advice — put the glue down as soon as possible.
“The glue takes a long time to dry,” Kayla said.