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Unstoppable Hose Truck

WOODIE FLOWERS School's out at Saguaro High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and it's practice time for the Science Team. They're in heavy training for the National Science Olympiad, just three weeks away. Today it's a rigorous test on the behavior of water balloons. It's the key to a challenge issued by Scientific American Frontiers.

GIRL We don't have to exert this untenable force ....

NARRATION And the forces involved will become quite important as they begin their mission. The challenge is to build a machine to move water out of this space. The water must start in a balloon, but somehow be released into a funnel ten feet away. Time limit--one minute. Weight limit--22 pounds for machine and water. No electric power allowed. Saguaro is just one of dozens of schools across the country developing different solutions to the challenge. Andy and Julie have built this test vehicle. They are using weights to simulate the water.

ANDY Kind of like a little windup car where you pull it back and let it go.

NARRATION They have concocted a unique drive train.

JULIE When I pick my mass up here, it wants to go down because gravity is acting on it. It wants to fall. And that falling of it will spin the axle, as it's wrapped around there, and cause the car to go.

NARRATION Time for a test.

JULIE Perfect.

NARRATION The results are encouraging.

JULIE This is great because you only want to kind of leave it, take more work and now you are taking more potential energy, so we can even put more mass on it than we have now.

ANDY We're going to go for maximum capacity. And we'll get to a certain point where we can say, o.k., this is too much. This is too little. This is just right. Kind of like the Goldilocks story, you know, maybe we'll end up with a happy ending.

NARRATION But getting it just right isn't easy. There's so much to worry about.

JULIE This string didn't make it.

NARRATION But mistakes are all part of it. Coach Tom Vining.

TOM VINING You get to hear ideas in minds that are fresh. Most of them are not trained engineers by any means so they are working on the trial-and-error system. Build it, see how it works, and then go back. Kind of like the Wright Brothers.

NARRATION Across the country in Greensboro, North Carolina, the Page High School team is perfecting a very different machine. They have decided to keep the balloon at the start, mounted in a water tower. This way they can put the weight into the water, not the machine.

TOM VINING It's hard to build a vehicle that's going to carry a large amount of water. And this, you know, we can get a lot of water there without a lot of weight.

NARRATION The key is this plastic hose which will be unrolled by the water itself. And to get it flowing, a pin triggered by a mouse trap which will also release this bridge that directs the hose toward the funnel. The trigger works great. But that's about all.

GIRL It worked, yeah!

NARRATION More work for the team.

BOY I'll do it over again.. Well, every time you fail, then you have got to keep it going

BOY Do it all over. See if you can improve it in some way, if possible

BOY #2 What I think happened was that as the bridge was coming down, and the bridge was still coming down, the water got to the coil. It was just the coil didn't have any, it couldn't go this way. It popped off the side.

NARRATION Can they get things going in the right direction?

BOY Don't touch it if we can avoid it.

BOY #2 Oh, oh, it's going to work.

NARRATION The scheme has got a lot of promise. BOY If the stand weighed nothing, we could get about 3.1 gallons. So if we can get two and half, somewhere between two and a half and three gallons in, we'll be doing good.

NARRATION There's more work ahead to improve reliability, but it's already worth the effort, according to Blythe.

BLYTHE It just starts out ... and it works. And then it's just getting more and more refined and then it gets working more and more often now. And it's exciting.

NARRATION That excitement reaches a peak as 2000 students descend of Pennsylvania's Clarion University. Fifty teams will compete. Everyone is raring to go. In their motel, Saguaro High unveils their finished vehicle. There is now a strong nylon thread and a huge water balloon. Julie and Andy have loaded it with two gallons.

JULIE Basically the balloon will drop and it will pull it. The car coach, and as soon as it falls in the ditch...Oh my!

NARRATION Two gallons--that's a lot of water.

GIRL They are going to hate us here, they are going to hate us here.

NARRATION It's competition morning. Time to weigh in. A few last-minute adjustments. And some aerobic stretching before filling up. The first contender is a car from Colorado which uses an elevated ramp to pick up speed. The car works--but there's a problem. BOY We got up to the top but it was splashing over. There's a clog in the drain ....

NARRATION Many teams opt for long arms, but the thin tubing on this one yields only half a liter, about a pint. For better flow, this team uses wide tubing.

BOY#2 I don't think so. That's just right.

NARRATION They hit the three-liter mark, nearly a gallon.

BOY It's coming. I'm happy!

NARRATION Arms and tube machines, however, are complicated.

BOY #2 Which will cause this to close. And that will go straight out.

NARRATION And prone to breakdown. Some just don't get there. Some trip on their own tubing. And for others, it's just a simple twist of fate. Arms are unreliable. Cars are better. Here's Saguaro High. They take the lead, delivering a gallon and a half.

GIRL That is great! It worked!

NARRATION But waiting in the wings is South Carolina's Irmo High, a powerhouse team. They've entered two different machines. The first uses a hose truck.

BOY What we are going to do is we are going to release the ramp. The car is going to go down the ramp and into the funnel. And once it gets there, the balloon is popped. The water goes through the hose, into the funnel.

NARRATION Its light weight allows a large water load. They're ahead of Saguaro with over six liters--nearly two gallons. Irmo's second machine uses the same tower design, but a more complex delivery system--a catapult powered by rubber bands will send a hose flying over the course. There's a balloon-popping mousetrap. And the end of the hose is weighted to help it fly the distance. Watch how it works in slow motion. First, a bridge is released which rolls out on a castor, guiding the hose. A string attached to the bridge triggers the catapult. Finally, a second, longer string on the right triggers the balloon popper. Two and a half gallons! So now it's Irmo High first and second. For many machines a basic problem keeps popping up. But for others, things happen before they should.

GIRL I hate this!

NARRATION And some designs are having trouble going the distance. The designer of this car has built in more than enough power to get up the ramp and into the funnel. It's a leak back at home base that's his downfall.

BOY Well that's where the rubber gasket fell out.

NARRATION Page High School is up next. But they are still having problems aiming the hose.

GIRL The bridge, oh it's loose. And it can land all different ways, and we should have fixed it but we don't have time now.

NARRATION They line it up.

GIRL Yes. That's it.

NARRATION The bridge works. And makes them a top contender with over seven liters. Two gallons.

BOY We had to get the bridge ... right, to be able to decide that it worked.

GIRL Practice. We're all practice. Patience did it.

NARRATION Time for the top four teams to run off in the finals round. It's between Saguaro's water-carrying vehicle, Irmo High School's hose truck and Irmo's catapult, and Page High School's rolling hose. It's a closely-matched field. Irmo's catapult draws the first run. Reliable and effective. Two gallons--seven liters make it. Page High could beat that. There's two and a half gallons in their water tower. But it's the old problem--aiming the hose. Irmo's hose truck is next. And they top their own team's other machine, the catapult, with two and a quarter gallons--eight and half liters--to take the lead. So it's up to Saguaro's vehicle. They've loaded it with three gallons--right up to the weight limit. They've never tested so much. But it's the only way they can now win. But friction from the increased load stops the machine only inches from victory. The champion is Irmo High School's Unstoppable Hose Truck. It's been a hard-fought competition but that hasn't interfered with the fun of it all.

GIRL This has been a blast.

BOY It worked. At least it worked once. Got us into the finals!

NARRATION You've got to make things work--and not just on paper, but in the real world. That's what the contestants found out.

GIRL It makes everything real. It's something that I'm doing, I'm not just hearing about it. I'm, I'm doing it myself. I'm experimenting and if I am wrong, I change it. And it's like real life. And so, it's really, probably the most exciting thing I've ever done in high school.

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