Dozens of High School Students, Replete with Robots, Descend Upon NJIT

Delbarton High took first place at the Panasonic Creative Design Challenge, hosted at NJIT.

Dozens of high school students came to NJIT Wednesday to compete in the 2014 Panasonic Creative Design Challenge, in which teams designed robotic devices that also had to navigate a seven-task obstacle course.

The theme for the 2014 Challenge was Developing Revolutionary Ideas for Vehicular Energy, or D.R.I.V.E. Following that theme, the robots had to run on alternative power – the fewer motors the better. Some teams powered their robots with rubber bands, some with string, while one team used the springs from a measuring tape. Twenty-four teams from across New Jersey competed in the final Challenge, which started earlier in the year with 50 registered teams. A preliminary contest whittled the field down to 24 teams; each team had three members.  

At the end of the day Wednesday, four teams won a total of $42,000 in scholarship awards and Panasonic products as well as trophies and the invaluable experience of designing an environmentally benign robot. Delbarton High School took first place with Robbinsville High School coming in second. Millburn High placed third and the rookie of the year award went to Atlantic County Institute of Technology.

Jake Riegler, a senior on the Delbarton team, said winning the challenge was “icing on the cake,” but what really mattered was how hard his team worked and how much they learned. They began working on their robot in November, when they would stay at school until 6 p.m.  On weekend nights they’d stay until 10:30 p.m.

“It was a lot of work,” said Riegler, “but it was really rewarding and we learned a lot.”

Panasonic, headquartered in Newark, has run the Creative Design Challenge since 1991, when it partnered with NJIT to enhance the engineering skills of New Jersey high school students. Joseph M. Taylor, chairman and CEO of Panasonic Corporation of North America, founded the Challenge to create “a steady stream of young, smart, energetic science, technology and engineering talent.”

Panasonic has had a long partnership with NJIT; several of the university’s top graduates have gone on to successful careers at the company. Each summer, Panasonic, under the direction of Terri Seeney, manager of Corporate Outreach Programs, hires NJIT interns to design the Creative Design Challenge. This year Amy Cilento, a graduate student of biomedical engineering, and Kimberly Lam, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, worked with a third intern to design the course and the specifications for the robots. 

“It is amazing to see how the ideas of three interns flourished on the final Challenge today,” said Lam. “The three of us wanted to come up a new challenge that would push these students to a whole new level. The whole experience was interactive and fun, and the proudest moment of the internship was seeing the students and their creations compete.”

Cilento, the other NJIT intern, said the interns were in charge of creating the Challenge “from the bottom up.”

“We had to come up with everything about the Challenge,” said Cilento, “from the general idea to the different tasks the robots had to overcome to building the obstacle course itself. We got to hammer, saw, and drill things all summer long, and it was awesome to see the students compete in the Challenge and struggle through obstacles on a course that we designed! The students had fun and learned a lot.”

By Robert Florida