February 7, 2019

Engineering Teamwork For The Win

Last month, three teams from Oakwood participated in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Annual Invention Challenge. One of three major events that students in the S.T.E.A.M. program participate in annually—alongside Maker Faire and the Horizon Grand Prix—the finals are comprised of only teams from schools that have earned top finishes at regional competitions along the way to JPL.

These qualifying competitions, one in Los Angeles and one in Orange County, each begin with 100 schools with only the top five from each competition qualifying for the finals. These regional qualifiers are then ranked and the top 10 from that list move on to the finals. Over the past four years, thanks to countless hours of dedicated teamwork, Oakwood has consistently placed high in the qualifying process, winning regionals in both 2015 and 2017. In 2016, Oakwood won the school’s first finals championship. Equally impressive results were achieved this year as well.

This was the most competitive JPL finals in the four years we have been doing it.

Marcos Arias, S.T.E.A.M. Department Chair

Each year, the final twenty teams compete to see who can come up with the best solution to a specific engineering problem. Since Oakwood has been part of the competition, challenges have ranged from creating a machine to shoot a dodgeball into a target, to moving a cup of water into a hole without spilling it. This year’s challenge was the Upright Pipe Contest—one that tasked students with designing a device to move a length of pipe from a horizontal to vertical position while only being permitted to touch the pole within a limited period of time.

Since last August, a team of twenty-one students from 7th through 12th grade met weekly to design, build, and test their devices under the tutelage of S.T.E.A.M. Department Chair Marcos Arias. Although there were three Oakwood teams with three different devices competing, Arias doesn’t assign students to a single design until a couple of weeks before the competition.

“Everyone at some point has had input on all three devices,” he said. “It’s a team effort. It’s very important to me that they understand that this device wasn’t built by the seven people who are running it.”

The originality of the challenge is enough that it stretches your creativity to a point that you didn’t even expect.


The team begins by thinking how a human would complete the task, then applying those ideas to their designs. Next, they create a prototype, which is tested and developed into a final design from August to November. The three devices that the students came up with used an inventive mixture of traditional and cutting edge technology—from a simple switch box and motorized hand drill to laser cut and 3D-printed components—to pull the pipe up to a standing position. Even seemingly simple elements went through rigorous refinement. To create a cushion to stop the pipe from wobbling after it was upright, one group first used a bag of sand, then bread, plaster, and memory foam before finally deciding on a humble ketchup packet.

“The originality of the challenge is enough that it stretches your creativity to a point that you didn’t even expect,” Arias said.

After months of work, the final competition day arrived on December 14th. A brisk, overcast morning welcomed eager Oakwood students and several other teams, including two who travelled from Guam and Ethiopia, outside of JPL headquarters in Pasadena. Once inside the compound, teams took turns having their devices measured and weighed, before heading off to staging areas around the outdoor campus. Oakwood students began warming up, doing trial runs, levelling their devices, and testing drill speeds. In a late-breaking surprise, teams learned that the competition would take place outside on uneven pavement, so last minute adjustments were made to account for the pitch.

I think towards the end, you feel a sense of accomplishment. The students really work together. You feel bonded.

Sasha '22

After an hour of tinkering, an official announced the start of the competition, as students and supporters gathered around the roped-off judging area. The first team from Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles wheeled their device out and activated it, sending the pipe from horizontal to standing, with an impressive time of 1.59 seconds. Teams not only had to try for maximum speed, but also had to make sure that the pipe wasn’t touching any part of their device once it was vertical. If it was, or if it failed to go upright, they were disqualified. Each team had only one chance.

The first Oakwood team placed with a respectable 5.54 seconds, while the second Oakwood team shot to second place with a time of 2.13 seconds. Late in the competition, Los Angeles High School posted a time of 1.67, which knocked Oakwood’s second entry down to 3rd place. As the rest of the teams competed, Oakwood students feverishly worked on their last device, all pitching in to try to figure out how they could beat the first-place time of 1.59.

At last, every other team had competed and it was the final Oakwood team’s turn to enter the arena. Their device was wheeled out and placed with extreme care. A switch was flipped, it sprang into action, raising the pipe in a blur. Time seemed to slow as it wobbled slightly, and the judge waited for it to rest, then stopped his watch. After a moment of consultation, Oakwood’s time was written on the board: 1.38 seconds. Oakwood’s final entry finished 1st, joining our school’s other devices at 4th and 10th place.

“What truly made it crazy was that at regionals only two teams had gone below three seconds, and at the finals half of the twenty teams were under three seconds,” recalled Marcos. “This was the most competitive JPL finals in the four years we have been doing it.”

An important skill from this and the Hydrogen Challenge is the ability to take in a lot of numbers and large amounts of data and being able to make decisions off of that.

Emma '22

After a trophy ceremony, the elated Oakwood students reflected on what they had learned from the class and the competition.

“I learned that simple tasks are really hard to accomplish,” said Jed ‘21.

“In terms of skills that I’ve acquired, I did the wiring, but we all dabble in a whole lot of things,” said Harry ‘19.

“An important skill from this and the Hydrogen Challenge, said Emma ‘22, “is the ability to take in a lot of numbers and large amounts of data and being able to make decisions off of that.”

Alongside the hard skills and problem solving under pressure that this challenge teaches students, several of them mentioned the sense of collaboration they felt working on one project with each other over the course of several months.

“I think towards the end, you feel a sense of accomplishment,” said Sasha ‘22. “The students really work together. You feel bonded.”