Hillsboro TSA places 3 students among nation?s top 10



The Hillsboro High School TSA organization bolstered its national reputation for excellence by bringing home three more top-10 placements at the National Technology Student Association Conference in Dallas, June 21-25.

Each of Hillsboro?s three participants placed among the top 10 in their particular event, led by Erich Herbel, a freshman in 2010-11, who finished second in Flight Endurance. Aaron Slater and Bret Mueller, competing as juniors, placed fifth and seventh, respectively, in Dragster Design.


Not only was Hillsboro?s performance this year the best of any high school in Kansas, but the finish by Herbel gives HHS seven top-three trophies over the past six years.

Mueller, whose dragster posted the fastest qualifying time during the preliminaries, might have finished among the top three as well had it not been for a broken axle at the end of the car?s quarterfinal run during the 16-car double-elimination tournament.

?I ran a slower time than I had been running, but I still won the race,? Mueller said of the fateful run. ?Then someone made some comment about the cars breaking, and it turned out to be mine.

?It?s kind of hard to watch the car that I beat end up in the finals,? he added. ?But I was all right with getting seventh. That?s still pretty good.?


While this was Mueller?s first appearance at the TSA national conference, Slater was making his third trip in three years?the only HHS student to do so. He had claimed fifth place in this event as a freshman.

?You get really nervous in this because you don?t know what?s going to happen,? Slater said about making the 16-car final bracket. ?I was happy with it because I got fifth. That?s the best I?ve done.?

Herbel, meanwhile, earned the runner-up spot in Flight Endur?ance on the strength of an initial flight of 2 minutes 25 seconds that HHS adviser Creigh Bell called ?perfection.?

?I can?t say it could be any better,? Bell said. ?He dialed that thing in.?

The winning participant recorded the top flight time of 2:35.

Secrets to success

Being successful at the national level isn?t as easy as one might think, given Hillsboro?s performance over the past several years.

Persistence, hard work, knowledgeable instruction and high-tech equipment have been key for the TSA program at HHS, according to Bell.

?Even at nationals you?ll get a student who doesn?t get any help?no parental help, no help from school,? he said. ?They buy a kit themselves. This is an extreme situation, but they sand it down the best they can, they spray it with a rattle can that has been setting on the shelf.

?At a certain point, you feel like putting your project in a box and walking away because there?s no way you can actually compete.?

The Dragster Design competition is a case in point. This year?s requirements limited the mass of the dragster to 30 grams (about one ounce)?the lightest target in more than decade.

To develop competitive cars, Slater and Mueller used computer-aided design, ordered unusually light balsa wood for the bodies, incorporated aluminum tubing for the axels, created their own wheels out acetal copolymer?a plastic that is comparable to aluminum in strength.

These operations would not be possible without the high-tech equipment the high school possesses.

?Those are the thinnest, smallest wheels we?ve ever made,? Bell said. ?Those are the thinnest, lightest axels we?ve ever used, and it might be the least amount of finish (paint) we?ve put on.?

Personal investment

But even with the technological advantage, success still boils down to persistence and hard work.

Mueller estimated he and Slater each invested probably 30 hours in the dragsters they created for nationals?after deciding to revamp the design of the cars they built for state competition.

?We moved the wheels back, because when we put the CO2 cartridge in the back, it would lift up, causing it to rub on the eyelets,? Mueller said. ?We moved it back so it would stay on the ground.?

The dragsters, powered by the CO2 cartridge, travel a distance of 65 feet, kept on course by fishing line that runs through eyelets screwed into the bottom of the vehicle. Mueller?s top qualifying time at nationals was .815 of a second; Slater?s was .837.

Because state competition is in April and school ends in May, national qualifiers do a lot of their work in June while fellow students were enjoying vacation.

Bell described how Herbel spent many hours test-flying his plane in the high school gymnasium during the hottest summer in years.

?He?d be flying his plane in 85 to 90-degree heat?and with no fans, because you have to fly without any air turbulence,? he said.

In Flight Endurance, planes are powered by rubber motors?similar in concept to rubber-band-powered toy planes.

?You test them, you play with them a little bit, you tweak, you bend, you adjust here and there,? Bell said. ?You wind up your rubber motor and hope you have everything matched up right and it will fly in a pattern.?

The performance of the entries in competition is not the only criteria used to determine placement.

In Dragster Design, race results count for only 50 percent of the score. Participants also are graded on the technical drawing they submit with their entry, the appearance of the vehicle and its construction accuracy.

In Flight Endurance, participants are judged by the total time of two flights, but can earn extra points for a smooth landing. Also, the notebook they submit with their entry counts for up to 20 percent of their final score.

Bell receives award

At the national conference Bell was awarded ?Kansas TSA Advisor of the Year? by students and peers.

His students were quick to add their support.

?He helps us a lot on these project,? Mueller said. ?He just works really hard.?

Besides his work in the classroom, Bell coordinated both the flight and dragster events at the state conference, and was the flight coordinator at nationals. But he was quick to say that once competition begins, his HHS entrants are on their own.

Bell?s enthusiasm for, and commitment to, the Hillsboro TSA program is apparent. He said the students get him energized.

?There?s just something in me that says I know these guys can get there,? he said. ?I don?t have to do it for them, but I see so much joy in them to walk on that stage (to receive their national awards). I want to tell them, you?re going to like this, just keep going.?

That appears likely for this Trojan trio as the new school year approaches.

Herbel has three more years ahead of him.

Slater said he wants to qualify for nationals for an unprecedented fourth straight year, and perhaps surpass this year?s third-place finish.

Mueller, who will be aiming for his second berth at nationals next spring, has his eye on besting the fifth-place performance his brother Nicholas achieved a couple of years ago.

?It?s fun, but it?s a lot of work,? Mueller said. ?There?s time when it?s just hard. But it?s fun succeeding, seeing it do well, and knowing all your hard work paid off.?

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