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Kids' rubber band instrument plays Bach, nets prize

Contest sponsored by PBS' "Design Squad Nation" challenges young engineers to build big. And they do, crafting a confetti-launching trebuchet, and a solar-powered hot tub, among other creations.

A lot of kids would see rubbers bands as weapons to be flung at the back of their classmates' heads. Not Paul Poulos, Kalin Ngo, and Robert Schill.

String Thing
A group of Ohio teens used rubber bands, plywood, and and a lot of ingenuity to make this musical instrument. Video screenshot by Design Squad Nation

The students from Westlake High School in Westlake, Ohio, attached rubber bands to wood boxes to create a musical instrument that plays real live music. And not Justin Bieber, either. Bach's "J'esu, Joy of Man's Desiring."

Their DIY instrument so impressed the judges of the Design Squad Nation's Big Build Contest that it netted them first prize in the competition. The contest, sponsored by the PBS competition series, challenged teams of 'tweens and teens, led by an adult mentor, to super-size one of the 40 Design Squad hands-on projects found online.

As with last year's contest--which focused on the green inventions and yielded projects like a kids' commuter bike and a temporary shelter for disaster victims--this year's devices showed some serious inventor moxie. The two runners-up and nine finalists created a confetti-launching trebuchet; a solar-powered hot tub; a bamboo sailboat with a tarp for the sail; an electromagnetic crane; and an entire living room made out of recycled cardboard, to name just a handful.

For the grand-prize-winning contraption, called String Thing, the inventors attached rubber band "strings" to handmade plywood "sound boxes" that amplify the strains of the strummed rubber bands in much the same way a guitar works. Nine separate sections hold nine strings, and each string is tuned to a different note based on markers that hold the string down. Though the bands are lined up to play the Bach composition in the video below, the instrument is totally customizable by moving the markers on the strings.

Members of the winning team may have had a slight edge, as they were enrolled in an unusual Westlake High class that uses "Design Squad" activities and videos to give kids hands-on engineering experiences. "The U.S. is lagging behind other countries in science, math, and engineering," said their teacher, Scott Kutz. "With 'Design Squad,' I'm able to expose kids to a interest and passion they might not have had."

As the grand-prize winners, Poulos, Ngo, and Schill will get a Cisco UltraHD Flip Camera to help document their future builds. They also get to video-chat with the hosts and engineers of "Design Squad Nation," Judy Lee and Adam Vollmer. And in a few years, they get to snag high-paying Silicon Valley jobs.