CEDAR FALLS — Thursday was golden for Perry seniors Jack Brosnahan and Will Whiton, who teamed to win the state championship in the Soda Straw Arm competition at the State Physics Olympics, which were held in the UNI-Dome.
Brosnahan and Whiton were not the only PHS students to shine, as Bryce Bucklew and Gabi Huntington paired to place fifth in the Catapult Challenge (shooting ping pong balls at targets 3, 5, and 8 meters distant) while Leah Reuter and Madison Thompson palced seventh in the Mouse Trap Car competition and Christian Loaiza and Cristian Olmos 10th in the Challenge Problem.
As a combined group, Perry scored well enough to earn seventh place out of 19 teams at the event after placing first and second at regionals.
“I think the competition is great for the kids,” PHS physics instructor Trevor Kittleson said. “It makes them use scientific principles and problem solving skills to complete the challenge issued to them. It takes a lot of trial and error and critical thinking to design and make improvements on their projects.
After gaining some hard-earned experience last spring, Kittleson said his students were ready for the challenges they would face this year.
“This is the second year we have competed,” he explained. “We won the regional as a team last year but were not prepared for the attention to detail at the state competition. We were much more prepared this year. I thought our students had some great projects this year.”
The dilema facing Brosnahan and Whiton? Construct an arm that could extend off a table and dangle 50 grams — just over one-tenth of a pound — for 10 seconds without kinking or collapsing.
The catch? The arm is to be constructed from 15 soda straws and 10 small sewing needles, and must be done in a 20-minute time span under the watchful eyes of the judges, after which the construction would immediately be put to the test — no trial and error allowed.
“Will drew a design and we went off of that to build the arm we used to win regional,” Brosnahan said. “When we got to state, we found out the straws were a little longer than the ones we had used at regional, so that meant we would have to adjust a few things to make up for the difference.”
Those on-the-fly tweaks worked to perfection, as the duo was able to top the previous-best effort of 64-1/2 centimeters by having their arm extended to 70 cm without failing. Knowing they had a sizable advantage, the pair decided to try again and managed to extend their winning distance to 72.5 cm — which is right at 28-1/2 inches.
“I have always liked science,” Brosnahan said. “Physics is a little more math worked into science, but it is just as fun for me.
“We knew we could do well, but once we got here we saw all these bigger schools and kids wearing suits and thought “oh no” but then it worked out.” he added. “It was a lot of fun and I am proud that we won.”
Whiton said that overcoming the initial surprise of finding the straws required of all teams would be of a different size than the duo had previously used was something he was proud of.
“That could have been a big problem, because it changed all the stresses and ratios,” he said. “I am glad I saved the drawing of the design, because we just worked off that, made some adjustments and went from there.”
Success is not new to Whiton, who has received numerous plaudits for his athletic skills. Winning an academic contest, he said, made him equally as proud.
“It helps break the stereotype of the dumb athlete,” he remarked. “It showed that I can do things well in the classroom, too. Jack was a great partner and we are proud of the win.”
While Kittleson was understandably excited about the gold medal effort from Brosnahan and Whiton, his pride as a teacher was elevated further by the successful showings from the other Perry students at the event.
“We had several projects that I thought were state medal quality and they just fell a little short,” he said. “It is really difficult to get a device to be reliable at all times. I am really proud of the students effort.”