In UVM’s Patrick Gym Complex on an early December day, the Vermont tradition of sugar-on-snow met science, as engineered by a troop of the state’s brightest teenagers. The setting was UVM’s eighth annual Design TASC competition, in which more than three-hundred Vermont high school students tested their ingenuity against a unique engineering challenge.

This year’s task was to build a machine that could accurately launch a tennis ball (in lieu of a melting snowball) toward a shifting target, powered only by a falling, sand-filled maple syrup can.

Charles Bombard ’97, one of the competition’s judges, can relate to the test the students face and the inspiration they find. As a student at South Burlington High School, Bombard competed in Design TASC in 1992. He graduated UVM in 1997 with an electrical engineering degree and now works as a software engineer at IDX Systems Corp. in South Burlington. Bombard recalled that the first taste of science he got at UVM made him hungry for more: “I was inclined toward science, anyway, but I enjoyed the overall experience so much that I wanted to remain involved. When the opportunity to volunteer this year presented itself, I jumped at it.”

Design TASC, sponsored by the College of Engineering and Mathematics, has grown into one of UVM’s most successful ways to connect with Vermont. More than eight-hundred people attended this year’s competition, which drew fifty-five teams from thirty Vermont high schools, more than in any previous year.

“I view this as a community service, to allow Vermont high school students to use their knowledge of science and technology to solve an engineering problem. They don’t get to do that much in high school,” said Stephen Titcomb, associate professor of electrical engineering and chair of the Design TASC committee.

This year, for the first time, three UVM alumni employed at IBM served as “industrial mentors,” sharing expertise with teams. One of them, Scott Pennington G’97, said he sees three main benefits to the competition. First, he noted, it sparks an interest in engineering: “This is becoming an increasingly technological society and engineers play a vital role.” The competition also stretches the students with a new challenge. And it promotes collaboration. “Students spend a lot of time working individually in school, but in the real world, engineering is almost always a group effort.”

Each year Design TASC fills Patrick’s indoor tennis courts with UVM engineers future and past — among them, Joel Hannah ’82, who teaches physics as Mt. Abraham Union High School in Bristol. Several days after this year’s competition he shared an anecdote, the sort that reminds a teacher why he is in the business. On the ride home to Bristol, a student asked Hannah about one of the prizes — a waiver of the application fee to the College of Engineering and Mathematics. “He told me he wanted to be a computer or mechanical engineer,” Hannah said. “So there’s payback to this.”

“It was great for the kids to get out of their school and see what the university is like,” Hannah added. “They find that there are real people there and it’s not an ivory tower.”