MESA catapults their way to the top

The Mathematics, Engineering, and Science Achievement (MESA) club on campus is dedicated to introducing to and helping students into careers related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) by performing numerous projects. The club meets weekly on Wednesdays and is advised by Mr. Abad, but there is also a sixth period class dedicated to the club and its goal.

Prior to this school year, the class was led by Mr. Ancalade, the only physics teacher on campus. However, Mr. Ancalade left his teaching position at the end of last year, therefore leaving the physics teaching position vacant. In his first year of teaching, Mr. Izaguirre filled the position.

Although the physics teaching position was filled, the MESA teaching position was still vacant.

“I wasn’t expecting to be teaching [the MESA class], but I was told by the principal and Mr. Abad that because I’m the only physics teacher, I’m the only one [who] can teach it,” said Izaguirre.

Izaguirre’s role in the class includes answering students’ questions and facilitating in whatever way that he can. However, his role is limited, because all the projects are, “100 percent student made. They’re the ones doing all the building.”

About a month into the school year, students could constantly hear over the loudspeaker announcements that anyone interested in joining the class should go see their academic counselor to join because the class had a teacher to lead it, but it was missing students.

“When the class first began, there were about four or five students,” Izaguirre said. He tried to recruit students from his physics classes and with help of administration using loudspeaker announcements, otherwise the class would have been cancelled due to lack of enrollment.  

“I have Mr. Izaguirre for physics, and I know he’s in charge of the MESA class. I was looking to get out of a class and this was available,” said Sofia Sosa, a senior in the Justice, Law and Service small school.

The recruitment of students seemed to work, as the class doubled to 10 students with more students predicted to enroll with second semester schedule changes.

The MESA class officially began in September and the students were immediately given a project to work on. The students were to compete in the annual Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Invention Challenge, which challenges competitors to different challenges every year. This year’s challenge was on December 1, so the team had more than two months to prepare.

According to the JPL Invention Challenge website, students this year were required to make up to 10 wiffle balls in a one-minute interval into a plastic tub six meters away. There was no specific device that each team had to use, so the teams were free to build whatever they liked.

Each team that competes enters under a name and the class decided to name themselves “Cre8tive.”

“We thought that having a catapult would accurately launch the ball into the basket,” said Kimberly Almaraz, a senior in the Technology & Media magnet about the device the team decided to build for the competition.

The team immediately began building the catapult and was immediately faced with some design challenges.

“We struggled to find the angle that would make the ball go in consistently and finding a release mechanism that would make it go,” Sosa said.

“There were moments where we’d launch the ball and it would go, but it would go too far or too close. That happened a lot the last two days before the competition but I was in charge of figuring out a certain angle so it’d launch accurately,” Almaraz added.

Before the JPL Invention Challenge, a preliminary competition would qualify local LA-area schools for the JPL competition.

“Cre8tive” placed first in the competition and all seemed well, because the team had confidently qualified for the Invention Challenge, but there was a challenge.

“When we launch our catapult, we have to cut off string because [the judges] don’t want us pushing it. Instead, we would pull it down and let it go,” Almaraz said.

According to Izaguirre, that was not allowed because the device had to be powered by a single operation and the team had not done that, because they used the string to begin but then moved on to their own power.

“One of the teachers from another school complained that we had not followed the rules and we got disqualified for that,” said Izaguirre.

The team thought all hope to qualify for the JPL competition was over, but they still qualified despite their disqualification in the regional competition.

“I told the team we qualified for the [JPL Invention Challenge] regardless, so as long as we did that, we were fine,” Izaguirre said.

On December 1, the team traveled to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology in La Cañada Flintridge to compete in the Invention Challenge. There were 20 school teams from California and Africa and seven teams of JPL faculty arrived to compete in the challenge.

“I was intimidated because [everyone else’s contraptions] were bigger and twice our size,” said Ihramn Frias, a senior in the Justice, Law, and Service small school about his impressions of the competition when the team barely arrived.

Once the team checked in, they found out that they were the very last ones to compete against the competition. This gave them time to practice and scope out the competition to see what they can do better.

“We were confident because we won first place in the first competition, but then we saw a team in action that made eight balls into the target,” Sosa said.

The team decided that they had seen too much of the competition so they went off to go practice with their catapult before it was their turn to compete.

“We thought that there would’ve been teams who made nine or ten out of ten so we were pretty scared. We tried to make our catapult as accurate as possible,” Almaraz said about practice beforehand.

All of the 26 other teams had finally taken their turn to compete, and it was finally “Cre8tive’s” turn. The team didn’t get to see all the other teams compete so there was not much pressure.

“At the beginning, we saw the team who made eight [balls], and we thought we couldn’t beat that. We left and started practicing so we didn’t get to see the other scores,” Almaraz said. “The announcer was dramatic. He was enthusiastic and gave us confidence,” she added about the team’s round.

The team had one minute to release and attempt to make up to 10 balls into the target that was six meters away. In 39.2 seconds, “Cre8tive” made seven out of the 10 balls into the target. That was the second-most balls made in the competition, only behind the team that they saw before heading off to practice.

“I told the team before they went to save the best for last. Everyone thought the competition was over but we showed up and got second place,” Mr. Izaguirre said.

Students and teacher alike were ecstatic about their result.

“Once we found out we were second place, [we] freaked out because we didn’t realize we’d make it that far,” Almaraz added.

“I felt that the other teams thought we weren’t going to place and [that we would] do bad, but we proved them wrong,” Sosa said about the rest of the competition and an audience that seemed uninterested.

Although the other teams at the competition had more elaborate and sophisticated equipment and creations, “Cre8tive” proved that quality rather than quantity matters.

“We went to the competition and looked at a bunch of crazy designs. Some were very large and some were very [extravagant]. At the end of the day, the competition was all about consistency and our design was consistent,” Izaguirre said.

“We had the smallest contraption, so it was good placing so high,” Frias added.

The top teams were interviewed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and NASA, including “Cre8tive.”

“There were a lot of projects that were big and extravagant, so we thought that they were most likely to be interviewed but it was us. We got a little shy when we found out we were getting interviewed, but we were excited,” Almaraz said.

The team is now potentially nationally-recognized and will have a great resumé heading into future competitions, such as MESA Day.

“We’re preparing for the MESA Day prelims on March 10 at USC and in this [competition] students can compete in four different categories. They range from building bridges, a ball launcher, a prosthetic arm, or a glider. I’m letting the students choose the most interesting, and they’re on the beginning stages of that one right now,” Izaguirre said.

The expectations of the team have been catapulted because of the result in their first competition, but no changes on how the team works will be made.

“If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it,” Izaguirre said.

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