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Alec Sass had to build out of balsa wood the lightest – and strongest – structure to support the weight of a bucket containing thousands of BB pellets.

Mark Doud and Matt Wagner designed a car, powered by the energy transferred from a falling weight, that traveled 8 meters as fast as possible before coming to an abrupt stop in front of a wooden wall.

And Erin Cuddihy and Beverly DiCorso constructed an absurdly complicated contraption that relied on gravity, magnets, a paint stir stick and a chemical reaction, among other features, to light a tiny light bulb and separate a set of paper clips from some marbles.

The students were among the 540 precociously inventive competitors from 35 high schools who took part in Saturday’s regional New York State Science Olympiad at Canisius College.

“It was a lot of fun, and I learned a lot about science from doing this,” said Beverly, a Hamburg High School junior.

The fledgling biologists, chemists and engineers spent weeks designing and testing their contraptions – from gliders to devices that bring to mind the organized chaos of Rube Goldberg – before unveiling them in Saturday’s contest.

It was the 30th Science Olympiad, a national event held to encourage interest in science, technology, engineering and math, and the fourth of the regional competitions held at Canisius.

“I hope that they learn to love science,” said Phil Sheridan, an associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Canisius and the college’s event coordinator.

Most of Saturday’s competition took place in the college’s Science Hall, where students, parents and Olympiad supervisors filled the rooms and hallways,

In one lounge area, Alexis Ruedinger used an elastic band attached to the nose of her glider to send it soaring into the air. The competitors in this event had just a few minutes to throw, with a goal of keeping the gliders aloft as long as possible.

When one throw ended with the glider doing one loop before crashing nose first, Alexis hustled to pick it up and throw it again.

“There’s a lot of pressure out there,” said Alexis, a sophomore at Maple Grove Senior High School, who built at least six different models before settling on the one she entered Saturday.

Over in a long, narrow room, Mark and Matt, both Springville-Griffith Institute juniors, watched as a wood structure that looked a bit like a guillotine sent their metal car zipping down the floor toward a wood wall.

Their car managed to cover the 8 meters in 8.5 seconds and stop 7.5 centimeters from the center of the wall. The event is called “Scramble” because each car carries a raw egg in front that can crack if the car travels too far.

“It breaks easily,” Mark said. “We were scared – we didn’t know if it was going to stop or not.”

To practice, Mark said, the teens used a plastic egg. “Saved on the mess,” Matt added.

And Alec was mostly pleased with the performance of his balsa-wood structure in the “Boomilever” event, which rewarded structural efficiency in comparing the mass of the structure supporting the bucket to the mass of the BBs in the bucket.

The structure looked like a bridge truss, and the Canisius High School freshman said he wished the part of his structure that hooked to a wooden backboard had held out longer, allowing more BBs to fall in his bucket.

“It’s a bit disappointing,” Alec said, though he said he did have fun.

Kathy Toy, the regional Olympiad coordinator, said the event is a celebration of knowledge.

She doesn’t mind if people think it’s “geeky” or “nerdy.” But she emphasized that the event isn’t only open to brainiacs.

“It’s fun to be smart, and science is always fun,” Toy said. “You don’t need to be the valedictorian to do well here.”

The highest-scoring teams advanced to the statewide Science Olympiad, which will be held March 15 and 16 on Long Island.

Also, to mark the 30th year of the Science Olympiad, Canisius College agreed to award a scholarship to the top-performing junior in Saturday’s regional competition.

email: swatson@buffnews.com