Last Friday, I had the opportunity to travel with my family to South Bend, Ind., to see middle school students from the South Bend Community School Corp. compete in The Fluid Power Challenge, which was arranged and sponsored by Daman Products Co. Inc. It was my first time seeing one of these events, which was established by The National Fluid Power Association several years ago, to encourage and engage students in math, science, and engineering, in particular hydraulics and pneumatics.
This is the third year Daman has hosted the event. The first year, Daman sponsored the teams to participate in different city.
Ten middle schools are represented in the event, with some schools even having more than one team. A total of 13 teams competed.
The competition was very impressive and it amazed me to see how difficult the tasks were and how the students tackled that difficulty with vigor (I captured a few snippets of them competing on video, which I will share tomorrow. In the mean time, check out pictures from the event here).
The challenge was to build a machine controlled by fluid power, that would lift up a wooden block, then move it to another area on an annulus diagram. As the problem instruction says, structural strength and fluidic control are main design considerations as the objects need to be carefully picked up and placed inside the arcs of the annulus (they can not be dragged). The more successful pick-ups and drops, the more points teams are awarded.
The competition began about five weeks ago, when the students visited Daman, where they got a crash course on fluid power, with an introduction to a variety of tools and materials they could use to build a pneumatic lifter and rotating base. At the introduction, the students were instructed to build one element of these machines — a lifter.
Larry Davis, president of Daman, said the students cannot touch the machine — they used syringes to control the devices, and these syringes act like a pump. As Davis said, the design and build teaches them about counterbalance issues, up and down and rotating movement, and clamping.
"They go from not knowing anything about these machines, to getting this knowledge," Davis said. "Then we see how they work as a team, what they know about fluid power, and safety."
Assembled into teams of four, the students were graded on their design, their portfolio presentation, their teamwork, and of course, how many blocks they successfully lifted and moved within the annulus. Interestingly enough, the winning team, from Clay Middle School, did not lift any blocks as their device did not work during competition, but clearly their portfolio, design and teamwork carried them far.
Tom Mailloux, the teacher from Clay Middle School’s overall winning team, said that although his students had trouble grasping the block, they were a team that just always kept going. “They didn’t give up,” Mailloux said. “You learn that even though you are failing, you keep on going.”
The winning team, which was made up of all girls and one boy, said the event was an exciting experience. Although none said they were considering a career in engineering, they thought it was cool to learn about new things they never even heard of before. As one girl said, “We’re all interested in different fields but we still came here to learn and have fun. This really puts it into perspective, what’s out there.”
Matt Giloth and Julie Alexander of Daman help to coordinate the event. They said the students participate in this event by choice — it is not for a grade.
"This is a way to combine education with life skills into a project that feels like life work," Giloth said.
Alexander added that it teaches the students the importance of teamwork, efficiency, research and development, and how to deal with pressure.
In addition to Daman, sponsors for the event included Womack, Alro Steel, General Sheet Metal Works, First Source Bank, and Barnaby's Pizza of South Bend.
Davis said they hold the event at Notre Dame because the university wants to reach out and engage the community. Several engineering students also mentored the students throughout the competition. My visit was concluded with a tour of Notre Dame’s Engineering Department. I’ll be sharing more on that later.