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Video: Strafford Team Goes for World Record Marble Run

  • Newton School teacher Eric Walker holds the world record-setting marble aloft after it ran over 1.5 miles in a tube along Route 132 in Strafford, Vt., on May 13, 2017. Walker and others will submit video evidence to Guinness World Records to secure the title. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • After wiring together a power source, a magnet operated switch, and three LED lights Ever Tofel, 13, tests the device at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., Tuesday, May 9, 2017. About 500 of the 15 foot strings will be attached to maple sap tubing to monitor the progress of a magnetic ball on its downhill track on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dustin Ray, of Strafford, back left, assists his daughter Joss, 10, as she wires LED lights to a monitoring device that will track the progress of their downhill marble roll at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Ray worked with third, fourth and fifth grade teacher Eric Walker, back right, to teach students, including Justin Robinson, 11, front left, and Julia Martin, 13, front right, about electricity and assembling the circuits that will be attached to maple sap tubing and will light up as a magnetic marble passes the switches for an attempt at the distance record for a downhill marble run on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • A 15 foot section of the rougly 9,000 feet total of wire being assembled by Newton School students, teachers and parents for a Guinness Book world record marble roll attempt sits, coiled next to a jar of flowers in a Newton School classroom in Strafford, Vt., Tuesday, May 9, 2017. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Luke Miller, 10, stretches while measuring the distance between LED lights in a classroom at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., Tuesday, May 9, 2017. Miller, Julia Martin, 13, left, Joss Ray, 10, middle, and Ever Tofel, 13, right, spent much of their free time in school and at home assembling the devices for an attempt at breaking the world record for distance of a downhill marble run that will take place on Saturday. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Dustin Ray, of Strafford, Vt., tells a gathering at the Newton School in Strafford about the planned world-record marble run on May 13, 2017. At over 1.5 miles long, the 15-minute run set the unofficial record at nightfall that evening. The video evidence still needs to be approved by Guinness World Records officials. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Team Marbleous members Cole Tanner, 12, left, and Sayan Bhattacharya, 10, look at the marble that set the unofficial world record for distance in an over 1.5-mile run in Strafford, Vt., on May 13, 2017. Tanner is a sixth-grader at the Newton School in Strafford and Bhattacharya is a fifth-grader at the Ray School in Hanover, N.H. The video evidence still needs to be approved by Guinness World Records officials. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Hoyt Grossman, 3, of Strafford, Vt., takes a look at where the world-record marble run will end at the Newton School in Strafford, Vt., on May 13, 2017. The run was successful later in the evening. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2017

South Strafford — Nerves were on edge around the Newton School Saturday night, where, despite the rain, a couple dozen families had gathered outdoors in the dark.

A core group of seven students — give or take, depending on the day — had spent the past five weeks wiring together more than 400 electrical sensors to batteries and tiny LED lights.

Nearly 9,000 feet of wire was now affixed to blue maple sap tubing winding more than a mile and a half up Route 132 on Sharon Hill.

Team Marbleous, as they called themselves, had what seemed to be a simple goal: set a Guinness World Record for the longest marble run, which stood at a little more than 4,200 feet. As the magnetized marble rolled through the tubing, it would trip the sensors and turn on the lights so that onlookers could track the marble’s progress.

But things were not going smoothly.

Led by parent Dustin Ray and third- through fifth-grade teacher Eric Walker, the team had completed a couple successful test runs on the 8,650-foot run earlier in the day, followed by several consecutive duds, where marbles got stuck partway down. The successful runs were not videoed and therefore could not be submitted to Guinness. Some of the LED lights were on, others off. The walkie-talkies chattered with questions as crews scurried to make adjustments. Rain poured harder.

Fifth-grader Justin Robinson, 11, one of the students who had spent his after-school hours cutting and twisting wires for the cause, said around 8 p.m. that he was feeling the pressure.

“I’m excited and nervous ‘cause this only worked once or twice today,” Justin said. “It barely worked in one spot. There’s been a couple spots where it’s been tricky.”

Asked whether he thought the team would be able to set the record, he thought for a moment.

“It’s 50-50,” he said.

The adults were not feeling much better. As Strafford resident Pat Kelly, who helped with the effort, arrived on scene, he asked Walker if he needed a hug — and the answer was a definite yes.

Ray soon hopped in a car to drive up to the starting line. “Lord,” he said, “please let this work.”

* * *

Ray, a 46-year-old application analyst at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, got interested in marble runs while homeschooling his five children in Shanghai, where the family lived during Elysabeth Ray’s yearlong position as an English teacher from 2013-14. Dustin Ray was looking for a way to incorporate interesting, real-life examples of science and physics into his lesson plans when he stumbled upon marble run videos online.

The family envisioned a short run, where a marble “could go into a bucket or something,” Dustin Ray said.

But the idea grew. The couple’s 10-year-old daughter, Joss Ray, now a fifth-grader at the Newton School, recalled her father realizing, “You know what, maybe we should do the world record.” By November 2016, with the family resettled in Strafford, Dustin Ray wanted to roll a marble down Sharon Hill.

Like Dustin Ray, the idea of hands-on science appealed to one of his first recruits: Walker, who has taught at the Newton School for five years following a mixed career in business, real estate and oil painting in Florida and Europe.

For Walker, the value of the marble run was not only in its demonstration of scientific principles like math, electricity and magnetism, which he will be able to incorporate into his classroom via the marble run example for years to come, but also in harder to convey concepts beyond mandated subjects, such as collaboration, flexibility and perseverance.

“It’s these habits of how you can be successful in life, and this project has just been so wonderful with teaching those habits,” Walker said earlier this month. “So many teachers want to say to their kids, ‘you need to persist, you need to pursue,’ and it’s really (that) you need to know how to work with others first, you need to know how to be creative and innovative first … and you need to embrace mistakes. If you can do all of these habits … then you’re able to persist.”

As the idea took shape, Walker recruited students to learn about the sensors, while Ray got in touch with Guinness to prepare to submit an entry, secured the guidance of his engineer brother and rounded up supplies.

For the tubing, Ray turned to Cabot, Vt., farmer Glenn Goodrich, who ferried 12 rolls of 1,000-foot tubing down from his 42,000-tap maple operation earlier this month, which Ray said will be reused in a future sugaring season. (“We get some unique ones,” Goodrich said of Ray’s request, while helping Ray, Kelly and town constable Ed Eastman to lay the lines on a warm day a couple weeks ago, “but this is really unique.”)

For the electrical wire, Ray bought a quarter of the footage he needed in ethernet cable for about $4,000. Then the team sliced it open and manually separated its four double-wire threads — a tedious task that kept the costs at “10 times cheaper” than what they could have been otherwise, Ray said.

Joss said the shipments of cable had overwhelmed the family’s home.

“You should see our house,” the 10-year-old chimed in. “Our house is made of wires. It’s like, box, box, box.”

During an afternoon last week at the Newton School, Walker’s classroom looked much the same, with clumps of brown, orange, green and blue wires covering several workspaces. Justin and three other students, grades four through seven, connected the short legs of the LED lights to the sensor wires in a particular pattern, while talking about the obstacles they had to work through, such as the metal driveway culverts attracting the magnetic marbles.

“It’s sort of tedious but sort of fun,” said seventh-grader Ever Tofel, 13, as he used a wire-stripper to remove casings. “It’s sort of therapeutic.”

In between student discussions of breakfast cereal, salamanders and whether camels are mammals, Walker repeated variations of a friendly refrain when students hit roadblocks: Figure it out.

“Mr. Walker,” called out 10-year-old Luke Miller, a fourth-grader. “This sensor does not work.”

“You have to figure out why,” Walker replied.

Walker said part of the learning process is that if a small part is done incorrectly, the whole thing may need to be redone, teaching students the value of care and planning.

“They’re sensitive sensors,” joked Julia Martin, 13, a seventh grader. “When they break it gets pretty annoying.”

* * *

 

By the time Ray climbed a ladder to the “starting line” in a tree on Lent Road for the official attempt about 8:45 Saturday night, most of the sensors were out of the equation. The team was worried that the batteries were attracting the marble and dragging on its inertia, so some batteries were unplugged, while other lights remained on from the test runs.

Elysabeth Ray, whom Dustin credited as a key member of Team Marbleous, reminded Walker moments earlier that part of their goal had been “bringing people together,” pointing out the dozens of children and adults who were excitedly gathered under a white tent at the school, with more in groups along Route 132, walkie-talkies in hand, ready to provide updates of the marble’s location.

“That said,” Walker responded, laughing, “we would like it to work.”

Dustin Ray’s engineer brother, Sam Ray, made the trip to Strafford from North Carolina for the event, as did many of the family’s other relatives from around the country. After Dustin Ray let the marble drop, Sam, video camera in hand, and Dustin jumped in a sedan driven by Elysabeth, who drove down Route 132 from one cluster of people to the next. At each checkpoint, they anxiously held their breath, listening for either the soft, tinny sound of the marble passing through the tube or a report on the walkie-talkies that the marble had already made it farther down the hill.

As it passed one tricky spot after another, the tension eased and excitement grew. “Guys, we just might do this,” Dustin Ray said, about eight minutes into the attempt. “If it makes it to Eric we’re golden.”

The car sped up to where Walker was waiting with a student on Route 132 near the school, their hands on the tubing to feel for vibrations. As the marble passed through, everyone cheered, before bolting to the finish line on the school’s front lawn, where the crowd was getting louder.

The marble quickly made its way to the end of the line — landing with a satisfying “clink” in an overturned bucket, just as the Ray family had envisioned. The crowd erupted in screaming, hands in the air, as Walker raised the marble above his head triumphantly.

Ray is now preparing to submit the evidence of the final run to Guinness World Records, in hopes of being officially recognized.

As things wrapped up on Saturday night, Julia, the seventh-grader, said that she learned about perseverance during the project and that such efforts can take “very much (a) long time.”

Justin, the fifth-grader who was nervous earlier, agreed.

“It’s really exciting, and it’s like ... it’s hard to explain,” he said, marble in hand. “It’s just really awesome.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at mcassidy@vnews.com or 603-727-3220.