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They arrived at NJIT’s Campus Center on a Thursday morning in late April toting bags and boxes, ready for the day ahead that marked the culmination of months of testing and tweaking. Accompanied by their teachers and project advisers, the 21 student teams from high schools throughout New Jersey had reached the final lap of the 2017 Panasonic Creative Design Challenge (CDC) , an annual science competition focused on engineering and technical skills. Panasonic and NJIT have partnered for this program, founded in 1991 by Panasonic Corporation of North America Chairman and CEO and NJIT trustee Joseph M. Taylor, for two decades now. The goal is to create a steady stream of technology and engineering talent in the Garden State.

“It really gets more exciting year after year,” said Terri Seeney, director of corporate communications, Panasonic Corporation of North America. “We are an eco-conscious company, so most of the challenges surround themselves around the environment. We try to tie it in and make [the experience] educational, where [the students] can go online and go ‘wow this really does happen, this really is an issue, how can we try to solve that problem.’

“We continue to do [the Challenge] because NJIT is such a premier school,” she added. “We’re all on the same page as far as what we want to teach the kids, how we want to engage with the students.”

The 2017 CDC — designed by two NJIT engineering students interning at Panasonic and a Challenge alum attending Lehigh University — tasked the teams with creating a device to assemble the parts of a Tesla Model 3 electric car on a chassis, positioned on two parallel aluminum bars and programed to move from one end of the platform to the other. This year, in addition to applying a range of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and mathematical skills, the students had to demonstrate their ability to code and wire a microcontroller. Their overall performance rating also considered logbook entries, written reports and oral presentations to a panel of judges.

The Final Stretch

CDC teams gather at their workstations before the event begins.

Before the Challenge began, the teams tinkered further with their devices at designated workstations located in the gallery area, while Panasonic and NJIT volunteers assembled in the ballroom to review the competition course and scoring guidelines. By day’s end, each team would conduct three five-minute performance runs of assembly-line-like manufacturing that involved retrieving a Panasonic battery, putting it in a battery tray and inserting the tray in the car’s frame; picking up the car’s hood, trunk and doors and placing them on the chassis; and programming the chassis to move on the aluminum bars using a microcontroller board. Four course platforms operated simultaneously, with the teams from New Providence, Robbinsville and Ocean Township High Schools and Newark Academy the first to compete.

“It's really inspiring to talk with the students each year. So often they tell me that participating in the CDC was what made them decide they want to study engineering in college. And when they decide to come to NJIT, it is even more rewarding,” said Linda Hirsch, assistant director for research, evaluation and program outreach at NJIT’s Center for Pre-College Programs, which collaborates with the university’s Career Development Services in coordinating the event.

By midafternoon, with their performances and presentations behind them, the teams began gathering in the Campus Center Atrium to hear the Challenge results. Each year, the winning teams are awarded special category prizes along with scholarships for college expenses.

Matthew Wroblewski, from Millburn High School, waited patiently with his team and remarked, “We definitely learned a lot. It was frustrating, but that’s part of the learning experience — running the problems and figuring out how to solve them… It’s great to see how far we came.”

“We really enjoyed it,” commented Matthew Began, a member of the Robbinsville High School team. “We got to compete with our robot, we got to present, and a lot of it was getting to work on the robot while we were competing.” Karen Young, the team’s adviser, observed that the Challenge is also a “real-world marketing adventure. You have to look the part, you have to act the part, you have to be prepared… The soft skills they’re learning [are] what’s going to take them beyond.”

And the Winners Were…

(From left) The Delbarton School's Nick Eichler, Mark Castellano, Adviser Greg Devine and Noah Jerris emerge victorious.

The Delbarton School ultimately took first place, each member winning a $4,000 scholarship and Panasonic WINGS™ Bluetooth wireless headphones. Second place went to Teaneck High School ($3,000 scholarships and headphones), and third place to Ramapo High School ($2,000 scholarships and headphones). Kinnelon High School was named Best Rookie and received $1,000 scholarships and headphones. Other recognitions included Ocean Township High School for Best Performance, Cranford High School for Best Oral Presentation, Academy for Engineering and Design Technology for Best Documentation and New Milford High School for Most Original Design, all awarded Panasonic compact stereo systems.

Delbarton’s victory was the private college-prep school’s eighth CDC win, coming after the team of Mark Castellano, Nick Eichler and Noah Jerris faced an eleventh-hour glitch when their robot claw wouldn’t work the night before. Adviser Greg Devine, a science teacher and moderator of the Engineering and Design Club at Delbarton, who has led the school’s CDC participation since 1996, noted that the Challenge certainly “teaches you the science and engineering and all that, but there’s [also] an underappreciated emotional component to this. Whenever you’re pulling a vehicle that will just not work and you’re with team members who might have different opinions about why it may not work, and it’s 11:30 at night, you learn to control yourself…good life lessons.”