By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
PITTSBURG, Kan. —
Leif Elliott had worked since January on a trebuchet design for competition at the second annual Gorilla Games held Friday at Pittsburg State University.
“I got it all built and it was throwing perfect,” said the seventh-grade student from Neosho, Mo. “Then I got to school Thursday and it broke.”
So, at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, after his track meet, the youngster returned home and used extra pipe to fix it. He didn’t mind putting in the extra hours, as it was school work he was excited about.
“I just love building stuff and being able to compete by using my hands instead of on paper,” he said.
He was optimistic about it Friday morning as he and 10 other Neosho Middle School students waited with their teacher, Alison Demm, for his event to begin in the Kansas Technology Center.
They were among 200 students who competed in the Gorilla Games, representing 14 schools from Southwest Missouri, Southeast Kansas and Northeast Oklahoma. Many of them echoed Elliott: perfecting their CO2 cars, their robots, their rubber band-powered airplanes, all meant extra work beyond the school day — but it was worth it.
“All the work I did on my CO2 car was extracurricular, after golf practice, before school, Wednesday night until midnight,” said Kyle Loy, a sophomore from Frontenac High School.
“Having something racing that you built means a lot. It’s also fun to get to do this with other guys who like the same thing as me,” he said, as he assisted with the CO2 car races held on a 20-meter elevated track in a KTC hallway.
The competition, just in its second year, was the brainchild of Loy’s teacher, Eric Gudde, who a few years ago realized how expensive and time consuming it is for students from this area to travel to Salina for competition.
So, he worked with Mike Neden, who heads up the technology education program at PSU, to create the Gorilla Games. Per-student registration is $10 and no overnight stay is needed for any of the schools — they’re all within a drive of an hour or two.
Gudde and his students began working in August to raise money to cover the cost of food provided to competitors, and retired teachers, PSU faculty members and Neden’s own technology education students signed on to man the events.
Already, the Gorilla Games has doubled in size from the seven schools and slightly more than 100 students who competed last year, and it won’t stop there, Neden said. Next year, they’re taking it to the Weede Gymnasium and plan to stage it like a national event, with jumbo screens set up for spectator viewing, eight competition venues and “pit crew” areas for each competing team.
Additional activities, like the chance to do injection plastic at the KTC or drive a Baja car, will be scheduled for students in their off time. Community groups like model railroad clubs, radio control clubs and others will be invited to set up displays and demonstrations.
“We hope to have 600 students, and I don’t anticipate any problems achieving that,” Neden said. “They’ll come from Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas. We’ll have sponsorships, and the gym will look like NASCAR. It will be huge.”
Pittsburg High School technology teacher Larry Dunekack, who brought seven students this year, said he plans to bring 40 or 50 next year.
“This competition meets my curriculum so closely. And then we can bring them here and compare ourselves to other schools, which is a great opportunity,” Dunekack said.
Neden, whose job is to prepare his students to teach technology, said the event was a great trial run for them and also a way to recruit new students.
“We’re trying to recruit kids to the College of Technology,” Neden said. “And with our own students, this gives them a chance to prepare and run events and interact with kids. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
Also held Friday at the same time and location were cabinet-making and photography competitions for SkillsUSA Kansas. Those intensely hands-on competitions, which organizers said dovetailed nicely with the Gorilla Games, also drew a field of high school students from across the Four-State Area.