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Originally published March 2, 2013 at 8:01 PM | Page modified March 2, 2013 at 8:43 PM

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Last-minute glitches test poise at Science Olympiad

Engineering skills and cool heads were needed Saturday as about 400 Western Washington middle- and high-school students competed in the regional Science Olympiad in Seattle.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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A model glider airplane nose-dived abruptly into the gym floor.

A vehicle powered by a mousetrap spring wandered randomly off track and trundled weakly to a premature halt.

Some kind of radio-frequency interference rendered a remote-controlled robot arm suddenly unresponsive at exactly the crucial moment.

Engineering is a science that sometimes masquerades as a black art, where unexpected problems appear out of nowhere. Just ask Boeing.

Or ask any of about 400 middle- and high-school students who competed in the Northwest Regional Science Olympiad at Seattle Central Community College on Saturday.

Assigned competitive tasks to test their engineering skills, they also needed cool heads and a sunny, determined spirit to prevail.

When Josh Larson, 16, a sophomore at Sehome High School in Bellingham, competed last year in the state-level robot arm competition, his machine malfunctioned in the three minutes that mattered.

Saturday, inside the time limit, his robot successfully lifted some nails and dropped them into the narrow neck of a plastic bottle.

Larson, a top high-school swimmer as well as a math and science whiz, had a smile a mile wide. “It’s the first time it actually worked fully,” he said.

Learning from the past, he used the same robot he’d spent months building last year.

“I cracked it open a week ago. I did a solid week of refining it in my basement,” Larson said.

He praised his “awesome, really cool” science teachers, who had left Bellingham with the kids on school buses at 6 a.m. to be on time for the competition.

Keenan Floyd, 13, of Centennial Middle School in Snohomish, epitomized the earnest, youthful optimistic spirit of the competitors when his mousetrap vehicle — powered by a sprung mousetrap, with CD-ROM disks for wheels — flopped on its first try by veering off, and didn’t make it to the end of the course on the second and final attempt.

Floyd had faced an uphill battle after a last-minute discovery: The rules required that he mount a long dowel rod on his vehicle. He and his pal James Nolan had missed this random rule in the competition instructions.

Yet Floyd was undeterred afterward, buoyed by having done well in two other Olympiad events.

His team placed fourth at the end of the day, qualifying for the state Science Olympiad on April 13 in Vancouver, Wash.

Cate Marken, 13, and Jada Jenkins, 14, of Mount Baker Middle School in Mount Vernon, didn’t place in the competition for which they built their own musical instruments — a Blue Man Group-style tube resonator made from PVC pipes, and a plywood violin, respectively.

The previous night, Jenkins’ violin broke where the neck joins the body. After repair, the sound from two strings wasn’t right, and she was forced to pluck it rather than bow it for her competition piece.

Still, their pluck and poise impressed their audience.

Over in the community college gym, Inglemoor High School senior Abby Conner, 17, made a valiant effort to catch the leaders in the elastic-band-powered glider competition. Her glider did sharp loops toward the floor, then climbed again.

But she couldn’t match the time aloft of a Stanwood High School team — coached by Scott Evoy, who’s a tech at Boeing.

Youthful spirits shone at the Olympiad. And engineering know-how won the day.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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