At this weekend's Worthington Science Day, students from all grade levels will present projects that range from the traditional volcanoes and product tests to concepts aimed at catching the eye of NASA.
Thomas Worthington High School senior Cole Tucker, 17, likely will fall into the latter category.
Science Day is divided into the Science Fair, Invention Convention and Design Challenge, with each providing a different challenge and requirements and winners in each category. It begins at 8 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at Thomas Worthington High School, 300 W. Dublin-Granville Road. For more information, visit worthington.k12.oh.us.
Tucker said he has participated in science fairs and invention contests since he was in the second grade, when he built a hydraulic vortex powered by a pump and tossed a Lego man into it.
"Mine have always been kind of on the larger side," he said with a smile.
With encouragement from his engineer father, Glenn, and business-owner mother, Lynn, Tucker has become an internationally competitive inventor whose projects have taken him to a variety of competitions.
Although his early projects got him onto the science-fair circuit, Tucker said he has grown to love inventing much more and plans to cultivate that interest when he starts college next year – likely at Ohio State University – to study electrical engineering.
"You're not just testing one thing," he said. "You have a goal, and you're going after it."
That direction never came as a surprise to his mother, who said she saw it very early in her "little inventor."
"He's a bit more of an inventor than a science-fair guy," she said.
His interest in inventing sparked his current project, a semiautonomous robot he said is designed to construct buildings on Mars.
The robot can turn a combination of water and rock material into a concrete-like substance. It then uses programmed plans and a three-axis arm to meticulously lay the "concrete" in the form of a building.
Although Tucker's robot stands taller than he is, the idea would be to build a much larger version to create habitable structures on Mars using pieces of the planet's surface, he said.
Tucker said he was inspired by a 2015 contest from NASA in which the organization challenged teams of designers to develop a concept that could be sent to Mars to help create habitats out of the available resources.
"I got stuck on the idea of building buildings on Mars," he said.
By early 2017, Tucker had created his interpretation of the concept. Although most entries in the NASA contest originated from teams of older designers, Tucker had worked on his own with only the help of some local sponsors.
Looking back on the project, he said, he couldn't believe he had completed it in time for the 2017 Science Day, at which he competed in the science-fair portion.
"It was fast because that's all the time I had," he said.
Tucker finished in first place and went on to state and national competitions, culminating in a fourth-place finish at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in Los Angeles last May. Even at the state level, he said, his project drew a crowd.
"When we rolled this in, there was a lot of, 'What is that?' from people," he said.
Tucker has been busy since his last Science Day. He will enter his robot in the Invention Convention this year, and he has been upgrading his robot while serving as the electrician on his Worthington robotics team. He said he has a lot on his plate but he enjoys it.
Though Lynn Tucker said she worries about his workload, she also is happy to seem him do more, especially at a younger age.
She said she hopes children with similar interests gain some attention from schools so they will be incentivized to add programs on such subjects as inventing and engineering.
"When a kid is interested in football or baseball, there are 100 programs for them," she said. "But if he's interested in engineering, there just isn't much. ... We just found things for him to do."
For Tucker, the lack of the spotlight isn't important. He said his reward comes from a successful test of a new invention.
"It's always worth it when you finally fire it up and see it all work," he said.