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Local schools compete in, win Contraption Contest at Carnegie Science Center

Jamie Martines
| Friday, Dec. 8, 2017, 5:57 p.m.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Kristen Knapp, 16, and Katarina Yurjevich, 17, both of Leechburg, put the final touches on their machine before judging at the Carnegie Science Center’s Chain Reaction Contraption Contest on Friday, Dec. 8, 2017.

Want to know if the Steelers will win Sunday or if there's good fortune in your future?

Hempfield Area High School students built a contraption for that.

Place a quarter in the coin slot, step back and watch as your fate is determined by falling marbles, shifting weights and a spinning mannequin head.

“You're going to look our friend here dead in the eye, and you're going to ask your question,” said 10th-grader Chris Venzin, gesturing toward the contraption and offering a quarter.

“And then you're going to put it in the coin slot and watch the magic happen.”

The Hempfield Area team took first place out of about 40 teams of high school students from Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia that competed Friday at the 17th Chain Reaction Contraption Contest, hosted by the Carnegie Science Center and Westinghouse.

Students built complex contraptions that demonstrated the theme “weigh it” using everyday objects and implementing basic physics principles like gravity or kinetic energy. They were judged on the success of their contraption — whether it was able to run without human intervention — and presentation skills.

A team from Greater Latrobe High School took second place. Cambria Heights High School in Cambria County took third.

Unlike some other STEM-related competitions — that's science, technology, engineering and math — that take place across the region, the Chain Reaction Contraption Contest is intentionally low-tech, said Linda Ortenzo, director of STEM programs at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh.

“That's where the real creativity is, being able to fashion something from nothing,” Ortenzo said of the students' contraptions.

The Scigirls team from Pine-Richland High School spent less than $20 on their Harry Potter-themed contraption. They pieced together recycled materials and objects they found at home to guide marbles onto a scale that weighed whether a player was more like the boy-wizard character Harry, or his evil nemesis, Lord Voldemort.

“This project has caused us to think outside the box so much,” said Devin Golla, a Pine-Richland junior. She described last-minute fixes to the contraption, such as a mouse trap that broke and had to be reconfigured the night before the competition.

In addition to challenging students' technical skills, the competition also fostered a sense of teamwork and discipline, students said.

“That's something, with any job, you're going to have to deal with,” said Seth Plasynski, a senior at Leechburg Area High School. He plans to pursue a career in forestry after high school and is currently the head of the greenhouse at his technical school, where he spends half the school day studying natural resources technology.

Plasynski and his classmate, senior Dillon Springer, agreed that opportunities like the Chain Reaction Contraption Contest give students the chance to get hands-on experience with fields they might be interested in after college.

Springer, who plans on attending technical school for welding and mechanics after graduation, advised his younger peers to seek out these opportunities and to take advantage of whatever classes their schools offer.

“Those things will help you in your college or your tech school that you go to,” Springer said.

Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at jmartines@tribweb.com, 724-850-2867 or via Twitter @Jamie_Martines.

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