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Student catapults to scholarship

By Cindy Cantrell
March 29, 2009
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For James Vayanos of North Andover, the decision to enter Merrimack College's contest to build the best Trebuchet-style catapult was a no-lose proposition. If he won, he would earn a scholarship worth up to $60,000 to study civil engineering at the school. If he lost, he'd still have a device with which he could spend the summer hurling water balloons at his 13-year-old brother.

Vayanos, 17, ended up enjoying the best of both worlds. After working on the project every day after school for three weeks, he recently beat out more than 20 students by landing an egg just 7 inches from the target: a frying pan sitting 48 feet away.

The egg catapult competition took place during Merrimack College's third annual ThinkFEST, in which students in grades 6 through 12 experimented in a variety of hands-on engineering, science, and technology demonstrations.

Vayanos said he learned about the competition from his physics teacher at North Andover High School and immediately began studying the mechanics of a catapult in his classroom. Because his creation stands 5 feet tall, Vayanos said that worrying about its safe transport in the back of his father's pickup truck was the most nerve-racking part of the competition.

The experience was worth the stress for Vayanos, who said Merrimack College had been on his short list of schools. The scholarship, which provides $15,000 per year for up to four years, clinched his decision.

"It's a relief," he said. "For so long, I've worried how this competition would pan out, what college I'm going to, and how to pay for it. All of that disappeared in one day. Now I can chill."

WHAT'S GROWING IN CONCORD: Software professional Dan Latham of Concord has long been interested in filmmaking. So when Concord Agricultural Committee member Jim Catterton observed that newcomers aren't aware of the town's agricultural history and offerings, Latham set out to change it.

His 45-minute film, "What's Growing in Concord," portrays the philosophy, produce, and personalities behind a dozen local farms and agricultural endeavors such as a beekeeper who sells his honey to a local supermarket. Locally, the film can be seen on Concord Carlisle Television (CCTV) Channel 8 on Monday at 7 p.m.; Wednesday at 8 p.m.; and Thursday at 6 p.m. It is narrated by television news anchor R.D. Sahl, who also lives in Concord.

Latham credits CCTV with providing him with the equipment and encouragement necessary to support the yearlong project based on the 2008 growing season. The title emerged, according to Latham, because the first thing people ask is what kind of produce is offered at each agricultural site in town.

Latham expects viewers to share his surprise at the diversity and distinct challenges of each establishment. In addition to an expertise in growing fruits and vegetables, a farmer must also be familiar with weather patterns, weeds, pests, and business skills such as marketing. Farmers must also be in good shape because of the amount of physical activity required.

"I didn't set out to make a big statement, but it takes a complicated operation to achieve what they do," Latham said. "Local agriculture is a great resource that shouldn't be taken for granted."

PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE: If she becomes famous someday, Erin Marie of Methuen admits that her mother could blackmail her using childhood videotapes in which she sings and dances to songs by Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. Next month, Marie (inset) hopes to take one step closer to her career goal of wanting "everyone around the world to hear my music and enjoy it" at the New England Urban Music Awards.

A music student at Northern Essex Community College, Marie has been nominated for R&B Female Artist of the Year. Her song "Turn Me Up" is also nominated for Best Single of the Year. The ceremony will take place on Saturday, April 25, at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester, with the winner in each category chosen by online voting at ne.urbanmusicawards.org.

Marie has been writing poetry and song lyrics for years, but just began singing professionally two years ago. In fact, she credits her singing career with a musical misstep in grammar school when she "failed miserably" at playing the flute. Her band teacher suggested that she try the chorus, which she did with considerably more happiness and success.

Today, Marie frequently performs at clubs and festivals. She is also working on her first CD, "Past, Present and Future," with SureFire Music Group in Lowell.

"It's the story of my life, with songs about heartbreak, love, and friendship that everyone can relate to," said Marie, who counts the first time she saw people dancing to her single - at a club in Lawrence last year - as one of the best moments in her life.

"If someone is having a bad day, I want them to pick up my CD and feel better after listening to it," she added. "That's what music does for me."

People items may be submitted to Cindy Cantrell at cantrell@globe.com.

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