More than 100 students representing 14 high schools from across Monmouth and Ocean counties gathered at Neptune High School on Feb. 3 for a unique engineering competition hosted by Brookdale STEM faculty and students.
The competitors were divided into teams and tasked with building a functioning “roller coaster” out of a small bag of supplies, including cardboard tubes, paper cups, scotch tape and a length of rubber tubing.
The goal, according to competition host and assistant Brookdale mathematics professor Nathalie Darden, was to create a track that could guide a marble down a hill and through a full loop, using nothing more than the force of gravity.
To make matters more interesting, Darden assigned each of the materials a dollar value. The team that could construct a functioning coaster with the lowest price tag would walk out a winner.
The competition, offered as part of the second annual Mini Engineering Academy at Neptune High School, was designed for young students who are considering careers in the engineering field, Darden said. By encouraging the participants to consider all aspects of a project – including costs, space constraints and even soil displacement – the contest forced students to step out of their role as observers and step into the shoes of a working professional.
“Engineering, and STEM fields in general, can be exceptionally difficult to learn and master. Especially in the beginning,” said Darden, who worked as a land development engineer for 13 years before joining the Brookdale faculty in 2007. “The work is challenging and theoretical. There is no immediate payoff. Many young students encounter that difficultly and turn away.
“But that is a problem,” Darden added. “We are falling behind the rest of the world in STEM education. So our goal as educators is to engage young students, and show them the practical applications of this work. We want to show them that engineering can be fun. We want them to achieve something, to see a challenging project through to the end.”
Those goals are shared by the Mini Engineering Academy, a comprehensive seven-week educational program sponsored by the the Neptune High School JumpStart Engineering Academy and the New Jersey Coast section of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or IEEE.
The academy, established in 2015, provides eligible high school students with a wide range of educational and professional development exercises, as well as opportunities to network with professional engineers, college faculty members and local public officials.
As half of the students enrolled in this year’s academy were building their improvised roller coasters with Professor Darden on Feb. 3, the other half was invited to work alongside professional engineers from the firm T&M Associates on a real site planning project for Neptune Township.
Teams of students were presented with the parameters of the project and asked to submit their own, creative ideas to help bring it to life. The student proposals were judged by a team of local officials and professionals, including assistant public school district superintendent Dr. Matthew Gristina, deputy mayor Dr. Michael Brantley and event co-chairs Dru Reynolds, of IEEE, and Josh Loveland, science chairperson for Neptune Middle School.
Halfway through the evening the two groups of students switched places and tried their hand at the other engineering project.
“It’s been fun,” said Neptune High School junior Marvin Morgan, after his team finished building a functioning – and relatively cheap – roller coaster. “We succeeded, and I’m pretty sure we’re winning right now.”
As an aspiring electrical engineer, Morgan said he enjoys being a member of the academy and having the opportunity to put his classroom skills to practical use.
“It helps, especially when you are taking classes like physics,” he said. “Being able to apply that knowledge to a project like this really does make a difference. Not to mention, we got to participate in a civil planning project that might actually become a reality. That’s pretty cool.”
Darden was joined at the competition by assistant mathematics professor Susan Monroe, instructor Yvette Wolfe, current Brookdale STEM fellow Nick Marcouiller and second-year engineering student Malcolm Bryson.
Bryson, a U.S. Army National Guard member who plans to transfer to NJIT in the fall, said he volunteered for the event to help encourage a younger generation of students to take advantage of growing opportunities in the engineering field.
“I never learned about engineering until I graduated high school and got out of the army training process,” said Bryson, who was able to meet with T&M Associates engineers and inquire about a summer internship with the firm following the competition. “So for me, it’s about opportunity. That’s why I do it. I have always wanted to give back, and right now this is all I can give.”
Click here to learn more about Jumpstart programs offered through Neptune High School. Learn more about the New Jersey Coast section of IEEE here. Learn more about Brookdale’s new STEM Institute by clicking here.
Check out more photos of the Roller Coaster Design Competition here.