What do a Solo cup, a golf ball, a toy car, a nail and a calculator all have in common?

A group of four Gretna High School juniors used each of these five items — along with a variety of other tools and materials — to construct a 40-step, Rube-Goldberg-type machine that turned off a calculator. Their machine won them the National Beta Engineering Build Championship in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on June 22. Beta Club is the largest national, nonprofit educational program in America, with chapters all over the country. In addition to their GPA requirements, Beta Club members have to be recommended by their school.

Each of the 35 to 40 teams competing had two hours to build their machine, using only the materials and tools Beta told them in advance that they could bring. They knew what to bring, just not what they would have to build.

The entire machine had to fit on a 2-by-4 plank of wood and stand no taller than 4 feet high. This year, the judges emphasized the criteria of creativity and teamwork, in addition to the machine’s completion of its task: turning off a calculator.

After connecting through groups and clubs at school, Kailey Wertz, Brendan Myers, Xander Birchfield and Eden Ilconich have been a team in these competitions for the past two years. Last year as freshmen, they showed they could compete with the best high schoolers in the nation.

“It was a completely fresh team, and somehow we still … took first in the state and third in the nation,” Wertz said.

Coming that close to winning the national championship as freshmen surprised the team, but it also motivated them to continue practicing. All that practice allowed them to nearly double the amount of steps in their machine from 21 last year to 40 this year.

In the weeks leading up to nationals, they practiced several times per week on machines that executed multiple steps to complete a simple task. During sessions, they would build a machine assigned by Jim Wertz — their coach and mentor, president of Altavista Instruments and Controls and Kailey’s father. The team used a space at the Altavista business for these practices.

“I think probably the most impressive thing is as a group to see them work together as a team and how well each one of them divided up and their contribution. … Each one of them really had a shining piece in this thing to make it go all the way to the top,” said Wertz.

With two years, two state championships and a national championship under their belts, the team still has two more years of eligibility to compete.

“They probably have more development right now than any of the schools in the country,” said Tim Birchfield, Xander’s father.

When asked about goals for the rest of high school, Eden said “keeping this championship.”

Once they complete high school, each student hopes to study engineering at a university. Brendan believes these experiences — traveling, learning, competing and winning together — will aid him in his future goals.

“It opens up new opportunities and new obstacles to overcome to help you in the future,” he said of the championship.

Their fifth teammate, Eli Bond, was unable to attend Nationals, but the team praised his contributions leading up the competition.

Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.

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