Most seventh graders have no idea what they want to study when they go to college. An Army-based competition has given three military-connected students from the Fort Bragg and Fayetteville area a chance to help the community and a glimpse into their future careers.

The A-Team, made up of seventh graders Ashley Mertsock and Claire Edmonds from John R. Griffin Middle School in Fayetteville,  and Emily Thomas, a Fayetteville seventh grade homeschooler won first place in North Carolina, with each winning $1000 in scholarships through the Army’s eCYBERMISSION program.

The program is a free, web-based science, technology, engineering and math competition for sixth, seventh, eighth and ninth grade teams. The program’s mission is to challenge students to explore how science, technology, engineering and math works in the world.

Mertsock, along with Taylor Pierce, Sydney Shank and Sydney Kraft, won second place in North Carolina for last year’s competition, each earning $500 in scholarships.

The team’s challenge began with them coming up with a way to raise awareness of the dangers of texting and driving.

Todd McCabe, last year’s advisor to Mertsock’s team, volunteered to help again this year. “He gave us very good constructive criticism,” said Edmonds.

The three students began researching different government safety websites. One of the most alarming facts they found during their research was that 6,000 people die and a half million people are injured a year due to texting while driving, said Mertsock.

“He gave us a lot of useful information. He also told us he can pull people over for texting and driving. He’s done it multiple times and not afraid to do it,” added Mertsock.

Steffans said he was very impressed with the young scientists. “You don’t see many young people their age concerned about the dangers of texting and driving,” he said.

Armed with informational fliers rolled up in thumb-sized, light blue rubber bands imprinted with “texting kills,” the three students made their way to the Fayetteville Fourth Friday event, May 26, to hand them out to people.

Mertsock said the age group that seemed most interested in the message was teenagers. “They thought they were really cool,” she said.

But, raising awareness about the dangers of texting and driving wasn’t enough for the three students. The next step for them was figuring out how to prevent people from using their cell phones while driving.

They created a device to remind people not to use their phones while they drive.

“The first draft was a bag with a motion sensor in it so when you put your phone in it, it would beep when you tried to pull it out while you were driving, reminding you not to do it,” said Mertsock.

The team found that the bag moved around too easily in the car and set off the motion detector accidently so they moved to a 32 ounce plastic cup, said Edmonds.

“We put a much more annoying motion sensor in the bottom.”

The cell phone was placed in a holder inside the cup. Ideally, the cup would be placed near the driver in a cup holder, said Thomas.

After testing the device numerous times with their parents, Shannon and Lt. Col. Tim Mertsock, XVIII Airborne Corps; Lt. Col. Sonya Edmonds, U.S. Army Reserve and Col. Mark Edmonds, Airborne and Special Operations Test Directorate; and Marianne and Lt. Col. Sean Thomas, U.S. Army Medical Department Student Detachment in Durham, N.C., along with John R. Griffin teaching staff, they invented the “cell phone in use cup,” adding a potholder to stabilize the motion sensor.

“We found that a lot of people found it interesting. People would try to alter it to make it less loud. We tested it on Emily’s mom and so that it wasn’t annoying her, which it’s meant to do, she put tape over it to make it quieter,” said Edmonds.

The A-Team even tried some marketing ideas, making T-shirts with the phrase “Just Drive,” under the CPIU logo.

After writing about their procedures, materials used and why they wanted to do this project, the A-Team sent in their mission folder. What seemed like “forever” to Edmonds, the team received great news.

“When we found out that we had won first place in North Carolina, we had to do an interview with the judges (over a teleconference.) There were five judges in the room. They all asked us questions and gave us comments on how to improve our project in the future,” said Mertsock.

Among the improvements suggested was the use of a more stable cup and a better motion sensor.

Overall, the three girls said they enjoyed working with each other on the project and learned a lot.

“I enjoyed experimenting to find out what works best,” said Thomas.

“I learned that it’s not easy working with a team at first but you get use to it. If you solve your problems, it will be easier,” said Mertsock.

“It was challenging and I liked challenges,” said Edmonds. “With the planning, measuring, counting and math, I learned that science is hard but really fun too.”

Texting and driving will continue to be a mission for the three students. Mertsock and Thomas are cadettes in Girl Scout Troop 1745 and are taking what they learned about texting and driving to apply towards their Silver Award, the highest award a cadette can receive in Scouting. Edmonds, who is in a different troop, is also working on her Silver Award about the same topic.

“We know we can’t completely stop it, so we’re just raising awareness so they’ll be more aware of what they’re doing,” said Thomas.

As for future college plans, Mertsock has discovered she enjoys science and wants to be a DNA scientist. Her two teammates aren’t quite as sure but journalism and photography for Edmonds and earth science for Thomas were mentioned as possibilities.

But for now, Mertsock wants everyone to know one thing.

“Just drive,” she said.