Carrboro teen wins online science contest

schandler@newsobserver.comOctober 13, 2013 

Eiley Hartzell-Jordan, left, and her mentor, Bonnie Lei, meet at the New York City premiere of the movie “Gravity.” The trip was the prize for Eiley’s win on the Gravity Design Challenge sponsored by science- and tech-education nonprofit Iridescent.

COURTESY OF SHANNON JORDAN

  • Look and learn

    Watch a video of Eiley Hartzell-Jordan demonstrating her "Rube Goldberg space mission" machine with this story at newsobserver.com/thumbsup. You can read more about the project and Eiley’s entry at bit.ly/19MgwLN.

To win the chance to see Hollywood stars at a movie premiere, Eiley Hartzell-Jordan of Carrboro first had to build a contraption in her living room that would simulate a journey to the actual stars.

Eiley, 13, used household items including balloons, straws, foil, magnets, wood and a Styrofoam ball to construct a “Rube Goldberg space mission” for an online science contest called the Gravity Design Challenge. The contest, sponsored by science and technology education nonprofit Iridescent, asked students ages 13 to 18 to build a launcher, transfer mechanism and gravity well to simulate orbit.

The contest was tied in to the movie “Gravity,” starring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock. The grand prize, which Eiley won, was a trip to New York City and tickets to the premiere.

“I wanted to do the competition so that I could go to the premiere of ‘Gravity’ and maybe get to meet Sandra Bullock,” Eiley said.

As it turned out, she didn’t get to meet the actress, but she did enjoy a taste of the red-carpet (which was black at this event) treatment. And she got to meet a different sort of VIP: Harvard biology student Bonnie Lei, who was assigned as Eiley’s mentor during the contest.

As Eiley developed her project, she would post videos and text describing her progress on Iridescent’s Curiosity Machine website and get feedback from Lei.

“She gave me some suggestions for things I was having trouble with and she suggested some different things to help me,” Eiley said.

Lei said she was impressed as much with her younger counterpart’s tenacity as with her ideas for the project.

“Eiley made many, many tweaks and improvements to her project in order to make it work,” Lei said. “Her machine also showed remarkable creativity, creating a unique design.”

In the final video posted for her project entry, Eiley spends a lot of time describing problems she ran into and explaining how she solved them. Especially tricky, she said, was getting the marble (that’s the rocket) to hit a tiny trampoline (the launcher) in exactly the right spot every time. But by experimenting with marbles of different weights and sizes, she got it right.

“It was a little problem that it just took me a while to figure out,” she said.

One day Eiley, an eighth-grader at McDougle Middle School, hopes to solve some even bigger problems as an immunologist. She figures all this scientific method and trial and error will be good experience as she starts her career. She couldn’t put her finger on just how it helped, but, she said, “I bet it did somehow.”

One lesson she took away from the experience will surely help her in her career and in life:

“You can’t stop working on something because it’s hard,” she said, “because whenever you do finish it, it feels really good to know that you got it done.”

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