As wooden glider planes catapulted toward the ceiling of the school gymnasium, pairs of model dragster cars powered by carbon dioxide canisters raced along a double track nearby.

Across the gym, just past the balsa wood bridge models, a robot platypus came to life — its eyes glowing and tail and jaw moving.

Along the wall of the gym, a judge used a machine to test the weight-bearing properties of a couple dozen balsa-wood trusses.

These projects were part of the nearly 60 different competitions happening under one school roof Saturday as part of the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association’s annual Region 2 conference.

Contests ranged from architectural design to biotechnology exhibits and from website creation to debating technology issues.

Held at Gerald G. Huesken Middle School in the Conestoga Valley district, the conference involved about 385 middle and high school students from Lancaster and three neighboring counties, conference director Christopher L. Miller said.

All competitions at the conference involved at least one of the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering or math — added Miller, who teaches technology at Conestoga Valley High School.

“Not only do they have to build things, but they have to critically think about what they have done,” he said.

Many of Saturday's winners will advance to the state Technology Student Association competition, in western Pennsylvania in April. 

See Saturday's results here

TSA STEM Conference

Event volunteer Dan Lefever explains the bridge test during a structural engineering activity during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association regional conference at Gerald G. Huesken Middle School Saturday.

Legos and trusses

Throughout the school Saturday, judges walked along tables of exhibits, from house models topped with solar panels to a cardboard display about biofuels.

In the school’s art classroom, judge Luke Yount watched middle schoolers use computer programs to create motorized Lego machines designed to sort the colorful plastic bricks by size.

Their projects are a “simplified version of the solution to a real-world problem,” such as how to sort packages by size at a business, Yount, a Millersville University technology education student, said.

TSA STEM Conference

Eighth graders David Koval and Mark DeCristopher build and program a lego robot during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association conference at Conestoga Valley Middle School Saturday, February 10, 2018.

When 1987 Conestoga Valley graduate Don Lee was in high school, he won the technology association’s structural design engineering competition.

Now a master scheduler for High Steel Structures in Lancaster, Lee came back to judge that same design competition for a new generation Saturday.

High school students, who had been given a list of design criteria, created wooden models of truss structures that might — in the real world — be used to move equipment through a manufacturing plant, Lee said.

“As a judge, my job is to make sure that they hit all the criteria and all the maximum and minimum dimensions,” he added.

TSA STEM Conference

Students race dragster cars they constructed during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association regional conference at Gerald G. Huesken Middle School Saturday.

In the school library, panels of judges asked questions to high school students who had developed video games and websites.

Three Penn Manor High School freshmen answered judges’ questions about their game, called “Fencing Simulator,” in which characters made to look like kids’ craft cutouts engage in increasingly difficult fencing matches through five levels.

“We sort of brainstormed, and that was the idea that we all agreed was the most popular,” senior Christopher Trussell, who composed the music and directed one of the fight levels, said. The team members said they worked on the game both at home and in school, spending about 70 hours on the project.

TSA STEM Conference

A group of Penn Manor High School students explain how they developed a video game in an interview with judges during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association conference at Gerald G. Huesken Middle School Saturday.

Decades of change

John Bratton, a retired Conestoga Valley teacher who helped found the state Technology Student Association chapter 40 years ago, said he has seen a lot of changes in the organization during those four decades.

When the association first began, Bratton said, it was called the American Industrial Arts Student Association.

“It was your standard industrial arts events, like woodworking, graphic arts and electronics,” he said.

Now, he noted, the competitions also involve a widening range of technological challenges.

TSA STEM Conference

Ninth graders Hailey Peterson, Alexandria Martelli, and Alyssa Carney from Pequea Valley High School prepare to show the website they designed to judges during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association regional conference at Gerald G. Huesken Middle School Saturday.

The name of the organization was changed to the Technology Student Association in 1988, Bratton said, to reflect these additional disciplines and contests.

Bratton said he has also noticed a sharp rise in the number of girls competing in the STEM contests over the last several years.

Bots and debate

For their competition Saturday, a group of Pequea Valley High School freshmen developed a website called Buy Buy Bots.

It’s designed to simulate an e-commerce site where consumers can “buy” artificial intelligence for home or office.

Alexandria Martelli, a team member who wants to go into the medical field someday, said being involved in the technology association is helping her learn to work as part of a team and speak in front of people.

TSA STEM Conference

From right: Tyler Slingluff and Hunter Silvaggio, both seventh graders from Gerald G. Huesken Middle School, construct and program a Lego robot during the Pennsylvania Technology Student Association regional conference Saturday.

Other contests involved showcasing debate and leadership skills, such as those in which Conestoga Valley High School senior Anna Cutler participated.

“The things that we focus on are technology-based topics,” Cutler said.

“I’m doing a prepared presentation which is focusing on artificial intelligence and its impact on humanity.” She was also involved in a debate challenge on the topic of how companies share their data.

Cutler said being involved with the technology association since she was in seventh grade “has really given me a good basis of what leadership looks like and what it looks like to work in an organization with multiple different kinds of people.”