Ottumwa High School

OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa High School Science Club is one of the top 300 teams selected from across the country for the next round of the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest.

The competition challenged students to develop a project that would better their school. The problem the students at OHS came up with is simple: The high school has one elevator in the main building, and it doesn’t work in the event of an emergency. How would students who depend on the elevator get to safety?

The solution is far from simple.

“Wheelchair ramps have to be 12 inches of length for every one inch of height,” ninth-grader Bladen Reinier explained. “Our hallways are not going to accommodate that. So we’re trying to come up with some type of material that would be incredibly high friction so they wouldn’t slide down them.”

The device the students imagined is a kind of mat that could be rolled down the stairs, turning them into an improvised ramp. The device would be composed of connected wedges that would fill in the individual steps.

“We spent an entire class period just sitting out there and using the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out the hypotenuse of each stair,” Reinier said. “Now we’re in the process of converting that to the hypotenuse of the entire staircase. Once we figure that out, we have to figure out the exact width and length, and how long each hypotenuse has to be for each wedge.”

It’s a multi-faceted project. The club is divided into three groups, each dedicated to handling a different aspect of the work. Reinier heads up the engineering and materials group, while other students are responsible for collecting survey responses from students who rely upon the elevator. A third section compiles and analyzes the data.

The project is largely student-organized. Club sponsor Heather Swanstrom, a teacher at OHS, said it was the students’ idea to enter the competition.

“At the beginning of the year, the club put out goals that they wanted to participate in different types of challenges and problem-solving things, and many of the students in the group had participated in Lego League or First City Challenge in the past,” Swanstrom said.

When she received a flyer about the competition in the mail, she immediately brought it to the students.

“We presented it to the students and they immediately thought there was something they could do to improve the school,” she said.

The competition originally began with 2,000 teams nationwide. After being named one of the top 300, alongside four other teams from Iowa, the club was awarded a free Samsung tablet. The award for being named one of the top 100 teams is $15,000 worth of Samsung products.

The club’s updated project is due Dec. 4, and the teams selected for the next round will be announced Dec. 23.

Jack Langland can be reached at


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