Chippewa Herald * March 26, 2011     Hit Counter by Digits

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What happens in Vegas hopefully comes home

by Tom Arneberg, Community Columnist

"What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Or so the marketing slogan goes.

Each winter when I was kid, I had to endure the sight of my parents flying off to sunny Las Vegas while my siblings and I were stuck in the frozen tundra.

My mom and dad weren't big gamblers -- she played the nickel slot machines and he the math major did his best at counting cards for minimal Blackjack bets -- but they got great deals on air fare, hotels and meals, and just enjoyed the warm weather.

I always looked forward to the day when I was a grown-up and could go someplace warm in the winter.

Well, our family does have two people in Vegas right now...but this time it's the KIDS! My luck has skipped a generation.

Yes, our sons David (14) and Jasper (17) are basking in the sunshine as I write this, enjoying the sights of Las Vegas (but presumably only SOME of the sights).

And they EARNED their way there! They are part of a team of seven Chi-Hi Physics students who won first place in the regional competition for "Construction Challenge" two months ago in Milwaukee, garnering themselves an all-expenses-paid trip to Nevada.

Notice I didn't say "vacation" -- they're having a great time, I'm sure, but I doubt they would consider it "relaxing." They are competing against 24 other teams from across North America for the International Finals. First prize is an Apple iPad for each team member!

It has been fascinating watching this team grow together. They got started mostly because of Mr. Nevins's Physics class at Chi-Hi. As an aside, all seven of them are also on the tennis team...I always knew there was something special about that sport.

To say that their victory in Milwaukee was a surprise would be an understatement. Their whole approach to that regional contest was seat-of-the-pants -- in fact, they were filling out paper work on the van ride down there (which left at 3:00 am). Nobody from Chi-Hi had ever competed in this event, so they didn't know quite what to expect.

But it did involve a lot of team work and quick thinking on their feet, at which these boys excel. They called from the van ride home that day, ecstatic about both their trip to Vegas and also listening to the Packers crush the Falcons over the van radio.

The regional required no prep work, but for the International Finals, teams have to make a remote-controlled car. Arneberg Acres was chosen as the main site for this project.

Having seven boys in your basement workshop at all hours of the day can be both a blessing and a curse.

I wish I would've tracked how much time these "mathletes" put in -- it was inspiring! Even during spring break, they were often up and working on the car by 8:00 a.m.

Fortunately, the last three weeks of crunch-time before the finals landed after winter sports were over and before spring sports began. That gave some schedule relief, but still, most of these students are taking multiple Advanced Placement classes and had a lot of homework.

A typical day for Jasper would be to work on the project after school from 4:00 until 11:00 p.m., with a short supper break, then start homework at 11:00. It was exhausting just watching them!

Adults are not allowed to help at all, but I loved sitting down in the workshop observing them solving problems. As in any tight-knit team, each person has a role to play. Opposites had to strike a balance: Lyle Paukner wanted to analyze everything before acting, while "hands-on" David Arneberg wanted to just jump in and start doing things before thinking too much about them.

Austin Thielen was the undisputed leader of the car construction, while Jasper emerged as the overall team leader. David Spiegel was in charge of the remote controls, while Adam Schwartz and Justin Dressler handled some of the other aspects of competition such as water filtration.

Their car design was based on a motor from a scooter they bought at a garage sale for $10. The scooter wheels were the drive train, while the front wheels were from a lawnmower. They made multiple trips to hardware stores and raided some of my leftover electrical supplies to wire everything up.

They used PVC piping for the frame, but had to switch from pegboard to plywood for the floor to provide more strength. Later they swapped some sheet metal for plywood to stay under the fifty pound maximum.

It all culminated on Monday with a big send-off at Chi-Hi, complete with balloons, school dignitaries, a stretch limo, and even the amazing Chi-Hi pep band!

As a dad, I could not have been prouder of how all seven of these boys bounced back time again after setbacks. I often reminded them that even if it's a total failure, nobody can ever take away the knowledge they've gained from this experience.

Still, part of me hopes that some of what happens in Vegas doesn't stay in Vegas, but comes to Chippewa Falls -- especially the iPads.

You can reach Tom at

Addendum -- after this column went to press, the Chippewa Falls team brought honor to their home town by earning FIRST PLACE at the national competition in the "Water Infrastructure" challenge! They did not win iPads after all, but each team member received a $500 gift certificate to Best Buy -- even better!

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