Teamwork. Preparation. Safety. These are just a few of the lessons that students from 25 middle schools in western Pennsylvania took away from their experience at the NFPA Fluid Power Challenge. The event was held on Friday, April 25, 2014 at the California University of Pennsylvania in California, Pa.
The NFPA Fluid Power Challenge is a hands-on competition that encourages middle school students to solve an engineering problem using fluid power. The students work in teams to design and build a fluid power mechanism before competing in a two-minute timed competition against other teams.
“The whole idea of the Fluid Power Challenge is to get kids interested in fluid power and to keep that interest going so we have a workforce of tomorrow,” said Lynn Beyer, workforce program manager at NFPA. “The kids gain real-world industry experience by using their creativity and problem-solving skills.” NFPA hopes that the enthusiasm sparked at these Challenges will carry back into the schools, encouraging students to select more STEM-related courses in their high school and post-secondary studies.
Wojanis Hydraulic Supply Company, Inc., located in Coraopolis, Pa., hosted the event for the fourth straight year. The company, a provider of fluid power sales and service, got involved in the Challenge as a way to increase awareness of fluid power, encourage more middle school students to develop an interest in STEM classes, and as a way to promote community awareness and team building within the company. This year’s Challenge was held at the university in conjunction with Bots IQ, a robotics competition for high school students.
In March 2014, the Fluid Power Challenge teams participated in a workshop day at the Greater Pittsburgh Carpenters Union, where they learned about fluid power by building a pneumatic lifter and developed the skills they would need for the competition. After completing the workshop day, students returned to their schools to work on the scenario and design, develop a portfolio, and build and test a prototype of the mechanism they would use in the competition.
On the day of the Challenge competition, all of the teams came together. The students used the same tools and an identical kit of supplies to recreate their unique mechanisms, which they used in the competition to pick up weighted objects and place them on a platform. Local engineers served as judges and rated the teams in a number of areas, including total points, portfolio ideas, design, and teamwork. Assembly started upon arrival of the students at the Convocation Center in the morning and lasted until lunch, followed by the timed competition.
“This competition separates the teams who come in with a plan and those that don’t,” said Patrick Spring, advertising specialist for Wojanis. One of the biggest benefits Patrick has seen from the Challenge is the lasting effect it has had on some of the teams. “It’s not just a learning experience. The kids are learning general life lessons.”
“The Fluid Power Challenge is a way for corporations to attract the youth that our aging population needs to replenish a diminishing work force,” added Judy Wojanis, company president. “Opportunities are plentiful in our industry, but the schools are not producing candidates for those jobs. Metal shop, wood shop, and the trades are not popular curriculum as they do not apply to the coveted test scores that schools are required to achieve for funding. So the onus is on industry to pick up our own torch to fill the jobs required to keep the machines functioning.”
Every staff member at Wojanis worked tirelessly to make this event a success, and their passion for the industry in which they work was evident as they engaged with the students. For example, Christine Simcic, Fluid Power Challenge facilitator, performed most of the organization and logistics of the event, which included meeting and communicating with schools, engineers, and funders. Patrick Spring supported filming, promotion, and photography, and pre-built a challenge kit with a fellow staff engineer in preparation for the competition. Kim Wrbas supervised lunch at the event, managed the arrival of students, and assigned teams to workstations to make sure everything ran smoothly. Larry Breckenridge, chief engineer, performed the bulk of commentary on trial day and competition day.
The event concluded with a ceremony where trophies were awarded to the winning teams.
“The Fluid Power Challenge develops a sense of community that has been lost in this day of data communications,” Judy said. “For a brief time, students are working together with people from industry, volunteers, teachers, and others sharing a common goal. This is why the Fluid Power Challenge is so important to not just industrial corporations but to our future.”
Sponsorships and donations are wonderful ways to support this innovative student program while helping to generate interest in fluid power. Sponsors of this event included Williams, RYCO, Schroeder Industries, Sun Hydraulics, PNC Bank, Greater Pittsburgh Carpenters Union, California University of Pennsylvania, Tobul Accumulator, E Safe Technologies, RL Miller, HL Hydraulic, and Pennsylvania Small Business Education Foundation.