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Young Inventors to Try Putting Tennis Balls Into a Can. Sounds Simple.
CSUF to host Jet Propulsion Laboratory Invention Challenge with teams all over Southern California bringing their own device designed to put as many tennis balls into a distant 30-gallon steel container in a minute.

November 14, 2006 :: No. 78

The teams will arrive from all over Southern California on Saturday, Nov. 18, at Cal State Fullerton and check out the competition. Then they’ll check out the tennis balls, their equipment, each other’s equipment, and the place where the preliminaries will take place. Each team is here with the goal of advancing to the finals.

A big tennis tournament? No. But it is big.

It is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Invention Challenge preliminaries, and each team has brought its own device designed to put as many tennis balls into a distant 30-gallon steel container as they can in no more than a minute. The other half of the preliminaries will be held at Manual Arts High School in Los Angeles.  The top five winners from each site, plus a total of 10 others from both sites, will go to the finals on Dec. 1 at JPL in Pasadena. The winners get trophies and some serious bragging rights.

It hasn’t been made easy. The contestants can’t just line up their tennis-ball tossers with the container, then fire away. There will be a barrier between the launch site and the target, so they will have to loft the balls high. Not only that, once it has been started, the team must step away from the device—no adjusting of aim, velocity or trajectory. Finally, they have only five minutes from the time a judge calls them to get their device set up, load it, aim it, operate it and then get it off the launch site.

There are two categories of contestants: One is for those from JPL and their families, and contractors with JPL. The other category is for teams from middle schools and high schools.

“The school teams are usually the most fun,” said JPL’s Paul MacNeal, who organizes the competition. “They’re really inventive, and they typically have more time to devote to this than the JPL people. They definitely come up with some things you couldn’t think of yourself. We have safety parameters, but they quickly look at all the things they can do beyond those and don’t give themselves many bounds in achieving the goal.”

Judging will be based on how many balls fly into the target container and stay and how long it took to do it. The elapsed time will be the deciding factor in the event of a tie. Contestants also will be awarded for such less tangible factors as the lightest, heaviest, smallest, largest, most unusual, most artistic and most creative devices. No explosives or caustic chemicals or other materials that can be dangerous or damaging can be used.

“It can get pretty wildly creative out there with these Invention Challenges,” said Vonna Hammerschmitt, director of the Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) Program in the College of Engineering and Computer Science and regional coordinator for the event. “I know one team has come up with a way to convert a leaf blower.”

About seven years ago, Hammerschmitt said, MacNeal talked to her about JPL’s Invention Challenge and said it needed more than JPL people involved. He wanted students involved, too. “So we helped promote the event to students. Participation increased so rapidly in the next couple of years that we had to go to two sites for the preliminaries, and we had to limit it to no more than three teams from each school.”
In Orange County, Cal State Fullerton has been the site for the preliminaries for all seven years, while the Los Angeles-area prelim sites have changed from year to year. Nevertheless, MacNeal said, participation has been strong at both. In fact, he said, schools from other states have asked to be included. If enough interest is shown in a state, MacNeal said, JPL would be willing to start a whole new Invention Challenge there, too.

For more information on the JPL Invention Challenge, call MacNeal at 818-354-7824.

For more information on the event at Cal State Fullerton, contact Hammerschmitt at 657-278-3195 or


Media Contacts:

Vonna Hammerschmitt, College of Engineering and Computer Science, 657-278-3195 or
Russ Hudson, Public Affairs, 657-278-4007 or

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