MakeShift Challenge: High School Lockdown: Most Creative Entry

Jonathan Deber and Karen Dawson’s Most Creative Winning Entry
by Lee D. Zlotoff
June 18, 2007

This was an interesting challenge, particularly since we were not asked to come up with a single solution. This had both upsides and downsides. On the upside, we had a lot of fun throwing out all kinds of ideas. On the downside, we spent longer on this than we intended.

A few assumptions:

First of all, if the cell network is down, whatever disaster is occurring is likely to be far more widespread than just your school. It’s possible that it’s merely a technical glitch, but it’s far more likely that a major event has occurred and the cell network has collapsed under the heavy traffic. If a widespread catastrophe (earthquake or the like) has occurred, and you failed to notice any signs of it at the school, it’s unlikely that you will have emergency services personnel showing up, since they will have more important places to be.

However, it’s also possible that the lack of phones was simply added to make this “MakeShift” more interesting. If it is a small-scale disaster, it’s quite likely that emergency services personnel have already been dispatched to the school. This is guaranteed to be true if the emergency is localized to the school, and is likely to be true even if it isn’t (e.g., if there is a gunman in the area, it’s likely that some police officers will be sent to the school, if only to search it).

Second, the only time-critical part of this challenge is our buddy Chester. Even though your parents may be freaking out, it’s not absolutely necessary to contact them. Helping Chester, on the other hand, is necessary.

If he needs an insulin shot within the hour, that means that his blood sugar levels are too high. Get him to rest and give him plenty of water. And then give him more water.

We can assume that he has his test kit with him (most diabetics do), and so he can keep an eye on his glucose level. We can also assume that his insulin supply is somewhere in the building, probably in the nurse’s office (if there is one) or in the principal’s office.

Your teacher will not sit idly by and watch your buddy die, which is what will eventually happen after he goes into a diabetic coma and doesn’t receive medical care. So, at some point, she will let someone out of the class in search of insulin. However, that’s not likely to happen right away.

Our solution is presented in three parts. Part 1 discusses the electronic means of communication at our disposal, Part 2 discusses other means of communication, and Part 3 discusses the possibility of escape.

Part 1: The Electron


Assign someone to scan every available channel.

Hopefully, you will be able to pick up some of the emergency services personnel that may be in the area. You also might be able to pick up one of the janitors. For each channel, the student should say something like “this is a student trapped in room [whatever]. We have a student who requires insulin. Does anyone copy?”, wait 20 seconds for a response, and then move on to the next channel. They should keep doing this for as long as the situation lasts. They should use a clock to count off the 20 seconds, since otherwise adrenaline might cause them to count too quickly, and fail to give anyone who heard the message a chance to respond.


Hopefully, one of the houses across the field has an open WiFi access point. We will try and extend the range of our laptop’s card in order to talk to it. We have a few options.

1. Build a simple WiFi reflector out of a curved piece of sheet metal.
Take a thin (say, 24 gauge or so) piece of smooth, shiny sheet metal (give it a polish, if you like), and bend it into a semi-cylinder. You can do this by hand, or with one of the roller tools in the shop. Take the laptop to the window, orientate the built-in (or the PC card’s) antenna towards the houses, and place the reflector behind it.
2. Build a “Pringles can” Yagi antenna.
Being the geeky type (hey, you have a laptop with you in shop class), you happen to have instructions for a Pringles can antenna on your laptop. Even if you don’t, it’s easy enough to figure out the correct dimensions with a bit of math. An example of this type of antenna is at, and all parts are easily available in class (and your lunchbox).
3. Try to rig up the cordless phone’s antenna.
If the cordless phone is a 2.4GHz model, you can try to salvage its antenna and connect it to the wireless card. This only works if the phone is a 2.4GHz model because the antenna won’t really help us if it isn’t designed for the frequencies we need (i.e., 2.4GHz for 802.11b/g). This could also be combined with the reflector.

Actually, now that I think about it, if the phone is a 5.4GHz model and you have an 802.11n card, you could still give it a try. However, this setup could only connect to another 802.11n network, and since 802.11n is still fairly new, it’s unlikely that the nearby houses would have it.

Either way, this is probably more trouble than it’s worth, and the Pringles can would likely yield better results.

Cordless Phone

Assign someone to keep retrying the phone in the hope that the phone lines will be restored.

They should dial 911, wait 15 seconds, and try again. We couldn’t come up with anything else, except potentially using its antenna, as described above.


Same deal as the cordless phone.

However, you should assign different people to try each cellular network. In other words, take one phone from each of the service providers that you have available, and get a different person to man each one.

Total: 6 possibilities

Part 2: The Atom

Between the potential emergency services personnel, the occupants of the houses across the way, and any concerned parents who have arrived, there are probably sufficient people around to draw attention to our window. If we create enough commotion, we will probably get someone to notice. In order to exploit this notice, we will make a large sign (out of pieces of white paper taped together) with large black letters (using one of the ubiquitous Sharpies lying around in the shop) that reads “NEED INSULIN.” We then place this sign in the window. If there are windows facing multiple directions (i.e., if the shop is on a corner), put a sign in each bank of windows.

We will try to use all five human senses to communicate.


We will explore several options that involve launching a physical projectile containing a message towards the nearby houses. The projectile could be made from a short (1″ or so) piece of pipe, capped with a nose cone formed from a small piece of sheet metal. You could substitute a pop can for the pipe, and cardboard for the cone, if it turns out that your projectile is too heavy. A message would be written on a piece of paper and taped securely inside the pipe, and the words “LOOK INSIDE” would be written with a Sharpie on the outside of the pipe to ensure that the recipient reads the message.

1. Water rocket.

Make a water rocket, similar to that described in Make: Volume 05. You likely have an air compressor (for pneumatic tools, or for a paint sprayer) to pressurize the vessel. However, you will need a larger reservoir than the pop bottle used in the MAKE article, since you need a longer range. A water cooler bottle would work well, although you would probably need to fashion a smaller nozzle.

2. Air cannon.

This one assumes that you have a decent compressor available. Take a length of narrow diameter pipe that’s threaded on one end. If you don’t have threaded pipe, you can make do without, but you’ll need to do a bit of extra welding. Alternatively, add some threads to one end of the pipe.

Take an end cap that fits the pipe, and drill a hole through it. Weld in a coupler to accept the air compressor’s output (“borrow” it from a tool if necessary). Securely attach the cap to the pipe, using Teflon thread tape for an airtight fit. Finally, drill a 1/8″ inch hole 1/2″ from the open end of the pipe.

Take a few inches of a rod with the same internal diameter as the pipe, drill a 1/8″ hole through it 1/2″ from one end, and attach the other end to the projectile. Put some vacuum grease on the rod, and insert it into the pipe. Make a pin from some 1/8″ rod, and attach a rope to one end. Place the pin through both of the 1/8″ holes to hold the projectile in the pipe.

Take the cannon to the window, put on some safety glasses, pressurize it, and pull the pin to launch.

3. Slingshot.

Find something elastic (flexible air tubing works really well), and build a slingshot. The only problem here is that you need something secure on each side of a window, to attach the ends of the elastic. We can solve this in one of two ways. Depending on the configuration of the windows, we may be able to simply tie the elastic to the window frames. If the window configuration makes this impossible, move two desks so that one is on each side of the window, and have a few students sit on each one. Then tie the elastic to the desk legs.

4. Catapult.

Normally, a trebuchet would work better than a catapult. However, you probably don‘t have enough vertical clearance in the window to make a very useful trebuchet, so we‘ll build a catapult instead.

Building the catapult is fairly straightforward, since sheet metal can be quite springy. Our biggest problem is how to apply the force necessary to set the catapult. A ratchet and flywheel system would be one possibility, but that‘s probably too complicated to build quickly. Instead, we‘ll use pulleys and rope. We‘ll just attach a rope to one end of the catapult‘s arm, run it through a series of pulleys (which are only shown on the diagram as a single pulley for the sake of clarity), and have someone pull on the rope to put tension on the arm.

However, this means that we have to secure two parts of the catapult to the ground. The front needs to be secured in the vertical plane so that we don‘t simply lift it off the ground when we pull on the rope, and the back needs to be secured in the horizontal plane so that it doesn‘t move backwards toward the person pulling on the rope.

Either of these could be accomplished with the help of bolts, but it‘s unlikely that our teacher would approve of us making holes in her walls and floor. So, we need to come up with temporary bracing. To solve the first problem, we‘ll brace the catapult against the underside of the windowsill. To solve the second problem, we‘ll put someone rather heavy on a chair that‘s positioned against the back of the catapult. See Figure 1.

5. Hot air balloon.

Take a garbage bag and tape your message (without the projectile) to the outside of it. Light a small fire (use a welding flame if you don’t have matches) and fill the bag with hot air. Tie it closed with string. If it doesn’t float, make more garbage bag balloons and tie them together until it does. Set it loose out the window, and see how far it flies. If it disappears out of sight before starting to descend, poke a few pinholes in another garbage bag and try again. Launch lots of them to increase the odds of one being found.


1. Bang on sheet metal.

Take a piece of sheet metal and a ball-peen hammer, lean out the window, and bang on it repeatedly.

2. Make an old-fashioned megaphone.

Take a piece of sheet metal and fashion it into a cone, using a few spot welds to hold it together. Lean out the window, hold the cone to your mouth, and yell.

We had also wondered about fabricating a large speaker out of parts from the PA system or the cordless phone (even if you just used the magnets) to power the megaphone, but there didn’t appear to be much benefit to that over just using your voice.


1. Make a signal fire.

The idea here is to make a traditional signal fire, much as you might do if stranded on a desert island (perhaps the same island from MakeShift 08). However, we don’t want to fill the classroom with smoke, so we’ll make a container we can suspend out of the window.

Take an empty metal garbage can and weld two 6′ pieces of sturdy bar stock to it to form a triangle (it doesn’t really matter what type of stock it is; angle iron, bar stock, or pipes would all work). Weld a smaller length of stock between the two sides. The result is an A-frame with a container on the end. Weld another piece of stock to the point of the triangle to form a brace (see Figure 2).

Fill the garbage can with a mixture of dry and damp paper. Pour on a bit of flammable liquid (there should be no shortage of that in a metal shop). Go to the window, open it, and stick the can out the window, resting the side of the can on the outside of the wall and the brace against the inside of it. For extra stability, someone can sit on the end of the frame if necessary.

Using a match (or some rolled-up paper lit on fire via some welding equipment), light the contents of the can on fire. Close the window as far as possible. You should get a large quantity of smoke, most of which should stay outside the building. If some of the smoke is coming back in through the mostly closed window, get someone to fan it out using a piece of sheet metal.

If the smoke isn’t very visible, throw on some plastic (e.g., garbage bags) to create black smoke.

2. Make a signal mirror.

If you can see anyone in the houses, you might be able to get their attention with a signal mirror. With any luck, both someone in your class and someone in the house know Morse code. Otherwise, a simple “S-O-S” would probably work.

Take a shiny piece of sheet metal (stainless steel would be good), and polish it up. Use lots of elbow grease—you want it to sparkle.

Go to the window, and try to reflect the sun off the mirror and aim it at the houses. If you can’t catch the sun, you can make your own light by reflecting the light of a welding torch.

3. Make a parabolic mirror.

Remembering an episode of MythBusters (“Archimedes Death Ray”), you decide to build a parabolic mirror with the hope of burning a message into a nearby field. You might end up lighting the field on fire, which would probably be a bad thing (although it would create a lot of attention, and the responding firefighters would be able to see you). You could also use it to light one of the nearby houses on fire (with the hopes of attracting firefighters), but that’s also probably not the best idea, and would likely detract from your extra credit (the jail time would also take a toll on your grades).

However, you then remember that the MythBusters revisited the Death Ray with the help of MIT students, and built an array out of a series of smaller mirrors that worked better than a fixed-focal-length parabolic mirror. So, you change your mind:

4. Make a solar reflector array.

Make signal mirrors for everyone in the class who isn’t busy doing something else. Get each person to bend his or her mirror into a slightly concave shape, and go to the windows. Each person should try to focus the reflection from his or her mirror onto the same spot on the field. Hopefully, you’ll be able to burn a message.


The burning plastic from the signal fire probably counts as a smell signal too. We couldn’t think of any other ways to make noxious fumes from chemicals in the shop (or, more accurately, any way to make noxious fumes that would do anything other than poison people in the class before diffusing harmlessly into the air). A sulfur compound would have been a good bet.


Nothing, short of throwing food out the window, I suppose.

Total: 10 possibilities

Part 3: Escape

Your teacher is unlikely to let you attempt these options. However, in a matter of life and death (which this is) she might be convinced otherwise. Or, you could hit her in the head with a piece of angle iron, tie her up, and then proceed with the following. You’d probably lose your extra credit, though (and, much as was the case with the solar reflectors, the jail time would make it harder to make up the grades).

The goal of the following solutions is to get someone to the nurse’s office (or principal’s office) and obtain the insulin.

1. Make a bulletproof shield.

Worst case scenario, there is a shooter in the school. So, we will fabricate some protection from small arms fire. Fortunately, one of the students is a gun aficionado, and knows that a sheet of 1″ steel will provide protection from even a high-velocity rifle round. (Good thing that he was there, since I had to look it up.) We’ll make a mobile shield that’s 4’x2’—large enough to crouch behind, but small enough to reduce the weight as much as possible.

Since we almost certainly don’t have 1″ thick sheet steel, we will make it by sandwiching sheets of the thickest steel we have. Once these are welded together, we build a rectangular frame out of bar stock that’s 2’x2′. Attach four wheels to the four corners (steal them off of a chair or stool if necessary), and then attach the armor plate with two braces. Finally, add a bunch of scrap pieces of heavy steel to act as a counterweight. See Figure 3.

Take a heavy chunk of bar stock to act as a weapon (hopefully not necessary), and wheel your mobile armor in front of you as you make your way to get the insulin. If the nurse’s office is on the main floor, get the elevator key from your teacher (if the metal shop is on the top floor, there has to be an elevator, and your teacher has to have a key for it, since otherwise she’d be unable to move supplies in and out).

2. Rappel down to the ground.

Find something that is of a rope-like nature (braiding several extension cords together would work), tie off the rope to something sturdy in the shop, and rappel down to the ground. Good thing you’re an avid rock climber! An alternative, and probably safer, option would be to securely tie one end of the rope to you and have several classmates lower you down.

3. Climb to the roof.

Fashion a grappling hook out of bar stock, drill a hole though one end, and tie your rope to it. Since you’re on the top floor, it shouldn’t be hard to toss the hook onto the roof. Tie another piece of rope to yourself, and give yourself enough slack to reach the roof, but not to reach the ground. With that as your safety line, climb up your grappling rope to the roof. Once there, you can either signal for help, or climb down to other parts of the building in search of the insulin.

Total: 3 possibilities

Part 4: Craziest, Most Dangerous, Least Realistic, and Most Impossible Idea We Came Up With

Produce your own insulin.

This answer started off as a joke: what about transplanting insulin from a donor to Chester? We were kidding around about making tools for surgery and trying to transplant pancreatic islet cells (the cells that produce insulin), something that is still on the leading edge of medical science under controlled, clinical conditions.

However, the more we talked about it, the less silly and more detailed our answer became. What follows is actually a vaguely plausible solution. It’s still only vaguely plausible, and I would never attempt it, but here goes:

Choose a donor. Ideally, they should have the same blood type as Chester. Find two containers to hold the blood. They need to be sterilized, so pick something that can stand up to boiling water (a pop can with the top cut off would work well), and boil them for 10 minutes.

Take the first aid kit that must be in the room, and use the alcohol wipes to sterilize the skin over a vein of your donor. Using Chester’s insulin injection needles (which he probably has with his test kit), draw blood from your donor and place it into one of your containers.

Now, we want to remove as much as possible from the donor blood that isn’t insulin. Fortunately, insulin is a very small protein (6 kDa), so many filters that would stop larger objects, such as blood cells, would let an insulin molecule through.

And, even luckier for us, we just happen to have a filter capable of doing this, and it’s conveniently located in the first aid kit we’ve already removed from the wall. Take the CPR face shield, and remove its filter cartridge. This filter is designed to stop bacteria, and should do a good job of removing all the blood cells from our donor blood. Pour the blood through the cartridge into the second container.

Finally, sterilize Chester’s arm, and inject the blood into him.

If we wanted to boost the amount of insulin in the donor blood, we could feed our donor sugar a few minutes before the procedure. However, this would mean that the donor blood would also contain high amounts of sugar, which is exactly the substance we hope to remove from Chester’s blood. So, we’re not sure if this would be a good trade-off.

Downsides: Chester will probably suffer an immune response to the foreign matter, and will be exposed to blood-borne pathogens from the donor. Your donor won’t suffer any harm, though (assuming you properly sterilized the skin and needles). However, there are any number of things that could go wrong, and you will probably be sued by several people, and possibly tried for assault (or worse, depending on the eventual outcome). Plus, I don’t think that you’d be able to transfer sufficient quantities of insulin for this to make much difference.

So, in a nutshell, don’t try this at home (or at school). (As an aside, it’s somewhat disturbing that this joke answer is the longest and most detailed in our solution.)

In total, we have 19 possible solutions, not including the half-baked or crazy ideas.

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