SHS MESA team takes on Seattle with style
After beating out more than 150,000 students for the right to compete on a national level, the Socorro High School MESA team returned from Seattle with first-, second- and third-place ribbons, and their sense of humor intact.
“We’d like to thank Dr. Pepper and Krispy Kremes for firing us through,” joked Tim Abeyta, one of a team of four Mathematics Engineering Science Achievement students to make it to the finals of the MESA USA competition at the end of June.
The team came in first in the test of how much weight their hand-built windmill could lift. They came in second with their technical paper, second with their academic display and third in the oral presentation portion of the contest. Their total points earned them the distinction of a third-place overall finish against students from seven other states.
What’s remarkable about their accomplishment is that they were a member short. Abeyta, Kyle Benalil and Sarah McLain represented Socorro at the competition. J.J. Drake, who was with them when they swept regionals and dominated at state, was unable to make the trip.
What’s even more remarkable, said their coach and sponsor, SHS math and MESA teacher Peggy Mitchusson, is that they only had two months to get ready for a contest that the competitors from the other states had been working toward for an entire academic year.
“The previous year New Mexico dropped out of MESA USA because of budget cuts,” Mitchusson said. “This year, they didn’t decide to do it again until April.”
Mitchusson and her students didn’t find out that nationals would even be an option until the school year was almost over. The statewide competition had fewer requirements. For nationals, the students had to give an oral presentation, prepare an academic display and present a technical paper; their windmill didn’t have to just lift 300 grams of weight, it also had to be able to pull a vehicle and create electricity.
With school out for the summer, and all the members holding down summer jobs or taking summer classes at New Mexico Tech — or both — the team met in the evenings, often staying at the high school or taking over Mitchusson’s living room until midnight or later to get ready for Seattle.
The teammates didn’t just add elements to their original design. In their pursuit of excellence, they made constant revisions, and ended up re-engineering their windmill one last time only two nights before leaving for Seattle.
“We had to make it better,” McLain said.
By the time they were done tweaking it, they had improved their windmill’s capacity to lift weight by a factor of 10. In Seattle, they demonstrated it could lift not 300 grams, but 3,000.
“Our kids blew everyone out of the water on that,” Mitchusson said.
Grace under Pressure
One of the things that made the Socorro team stand out among the rest was a certain playfulness. Accompanying them on the trip was a character named Tom.
“Tom was this fictional stress-meter,” Abeyta said. “We put him on our display to
tell people what we went through.”
As they went through their experimental process, they drew Tom’s face in a variety of ways, depending on the degree of difficulty of the obstacles they had to overcome.
“In the beginning it was all fun and games, so it was stress level one,” Mitchusson said. “Then they’d run into this physics problem, or some other challenge. The last one was stress level five – he was pulling his hair and grimacing.”
A sense of humor also served them well in their oral presentation, where they took an unorthodox approach to presenting their hypotheses, data and conclusions.
“We didn’t want to bore the judges, so after reading raw data we had something to entertain them,” said Benalil. “We had a skit — it worked really well.”
“We’re not boring people,” Abeyta said.
As a comedy troupe and an engineering team, the three, who have “known each other forever,” Abeyta said, worked together like a well-oiled machine. Team chemistry was definitely a factor in their success. Another factor was their willingness to take advantage of every available resource and leave no stone unturned in trying to find solutions to their technical problems. At one point, they even prevailed on a former SHS MESA student, Isaiah Acevedo, to take them over to New Mexico Tech and teach them Solidworks, the computed assisted drafting software program they used to make their technical drawing.
The students’ answers to why they worked so tirelessly revealed something about their motivations. They didn’t want to lose, or to embarrass themselves, but most of all, they were willing to do whatever it took to be successful and show what they were made of.
“We wanted to be even more impressive,” Benalil said, only half jokingly.
One of the most stressful moments of the competition came when they discovered they needed to create a Powerpoint presentation 15 minutes before an important part of the contest — they made it with seconds to spare. Another came when McLain looked at the time on Benalil’s laptop, which he hadn’t changed to Pacific time from Mountain time, and thought they had missed the display portion of the contest.
“She gave me a heart attack,” Abeyta said.
The best moment came earlier.
“Winning the lifting — like, totally destroying the lifting — that was awesome,” Abeyta said.
Possibly the funniest moment of the trip came not during the competition but at a sushi restaurant, where the boys incidentally discovered that they “hate sushi.” Mitchusson, who was sitting with her husband a little way away from the students, ordered an appetizer plate with California rolls, and brought some over to the kids to try.
“Tim looks at it and says, ‘That’s what I ordered? I thought I ordered bread!’” Mitchusson said.
Try, Try Again
Abeyta and McLain will be seniors at SHS next year, and will have one more opportunity to qualify for MESA USA.
“Next year we’re going to win the whole thing,” Abeyta said.
“We’re going to clean it out!” agreed McLain.
Benalil, who will enter Tech in the fall, said he’s going to miss MESA, but Mitchusson hopes he’ll still be a part of the team, as a resource if not a member.
“I have no doubt in my mind that if the school participates in MESA USA again next year, these kids will win,” she said. “There’s no one who can beat them.”