Fayette County

Challenge confirms 'play is learning tool'

It's hard to think about the finer points of torque, physics and mechanical engineering as cannon-propelled tennis balls rain down all around.

But that's the clever charm of the Mechanalia Challenge, which manages to soak science education in adrenaline.

The challenge is part Laser Tag, part Robot Wars and a dash of science class all rolled into one by the imagination of Lexington entrepreneur Bill Cloyd.

Cloyd, president of the non-profit science education organization Newton's Attic, conceived this science-based physical challenge as fun competition for budding young engineers.

"Play is the ultimate learning tool," said Dawn Cloyd, Bill's wife, who helped supervise Saturday's Mechanalia Challenge demonstration in the parking lot behind Rupp Arena and Heritage Hall.

Here's how it works: Students who participate in Newton's Attic's science camps spend at least a week designing and building their own robotic arms and grippers that can be attached to Plexiglas-enclosed go-carts.

"In the process, they learn the math and physics behind what they're doing," Dawn Cloyd said.

At the end of the building sessions, the teams of students test out their handiwork on the Mechanalia Challenge course.

They attach their homemade arms to vehicles and race each other to use the arm to pick up metal rings, oversize tennis balls, squishy footballs and PVC pipes to deposit in a black tub for points.

The trick is to avoid tennis balls shot by the opposing team using cannons atop towers. If a tennis ball hits a giant sensor pad on the car's roof, it shuts down for 15 seconds. The team with the most points in the bin after 10 minutes wins — unless a team finds a loophole, prompting chaos.

More on that later.

The innovative and competitive approach to science education has won Cloyd fans at the University of Kentucky's College of Engineering.

Bruce Walcott, the college's associate dean for new economy initiatives and innovations management, said Newton's Attic's approach can inspire students' interest in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.

"Middle school is the key because that's where they select serious math courses or not," he said. "So these kids are essentially deciding their careers — or at least potentially lopping off a branch — in middle school."

But if they see how math and science can be fun, exciting and useful, they will be more likely to give it a chance, he said.

Last month, a group of high school students from Colorado flew to Lexington to take part in a Mechanalia Challenge. And Newton's Attic is beginning to sign up students for summer camps.

Bill Cloyd, who spent two years as a science teacher, built the competition and its robotic components for the same reason he's built things all is life: to test the limits.

This is, after all, a man who at age 18 built an 80-foot tower from which he could bungee jump into a net.

Saturday's demonstration mostly attracted big kids to play with the "souped-up golf carts," as Kassy Lum, a UK mechanical engineering and Spanish major, put it.

Lum and several other members of UK's engineering honor society got to play for the first time. They usually only help the Cloyds set up the competition.

At one point during a match between the UK team and four employees of Trane Inc., the game changed into keep-away as Team Trane's drivers, Joe Wheatley and Jonathan Pyles, used their robotic arm to steal the UK team's bin of items.

When the tennis balls stopped flying, somehow one bin ended inside of another one, prompting Bill Cloyd to declare a first-of-its-kind tie.

"That's not engineering, that's a bunch of lawyers finding a loophole," Walcott grumbled.

Then again, part of science is finding ways to innovate.