As promised, here is a post about how our device worked. With nationals over and this event out of the rotation for the foreseeable future, I hope that others are willing to share the methods they used for this event as well.
Here is a video of the device running(no audio, but you can imagine when the buzzer sounds): https://vimeo.com/125410065
The ASL we created is also attached to this post. We decided to use purely mechanical and electrical transfers, mostly because of the headaches we had with chemical, thermal, and emag transfers last year.
The bulk of the transfers were created out of modified relays. The relays were used only as a means to get a mechanical movement from an electric current, per the "one transfer per component" rule. Two external wires were attached to the relay, which were pushed together by the armature on the relay.
Each golf ball is dropped by a motor allowing the ball to fall in, which subsequently hits a microswitch visible on the side of each motor housing. This setup was created from scratch after the FAQs in early March were posted.
The variable time requirement was met by using two mechanical timers. These timers worked in the same style as egg timers, but had a range of 60 seconds instead of 60 minutes. This allowed us to get precision within a second. The timers were initially triggered by pulling out a nail wedged between two gears, and trigger the buzzer by hitting a microswitch when the second timer reaches completion. This was possibly the trickiest and least reliable part of the device.
We made the device as small as we were realistically able to. Here are some images with scale, for reference.
Our score at Nats was 1096.2 (as the proctor mentioned to us). It would have been 50 points higher if the proctor had agreed with our understanding of the rules. I essentially want to copy and paste what SWAnG had posted- We have taken a version of this device to seven competitions this year, including MIT, Wright State, and our State competition. Our proctor at Wright State was also judging our device at nationals, and he had no issue with our initial golf ball drop at the earlier tournament. One of the reasons our team goes to so many tournaments throughout the year is to figure out these sort of problems before it really matters. My partner and I also submitted numerous FAQs throughout the year, albeit none specifically about the issue the proctors ended up having with our device. Even if we had known the night before that they had this interpretation of the rules, we could have done something about it. Applying the general rules of science olympiad, I think that our interpretation of the rules should have been deemed acceptable because we did not " interpret the rules [to] have an unfair advantage," per the national general rules policy. It is difficult to identify what the "spirit of the problem" is when the rules and FAQs are seemingly contradictory and changing completely two months before the national competition. Additionally, I agree that students need to have a chance to explain themselves to an arbitration committee. I had to spend an hour during the day explaining the nature of the problem to my coach and writing an appeal, instead of worrying about the study event I still had.
We were right next to table 8- here's a photo of us running the device and then frantically searching for relevant FAQs, lol.
Science Olympiad should be about competitors being able to demonstrate their best skills in science, engineering, and problem solving, not lawyering through legalese and vague rules.