Competition stokes interdisciplinary curiosity in STEM

New Jersey high school students are racing model cars with an unlikely power source — hydrogen fuel cells.

“You charge these cells, it separates distilled water into oxygen and hydrogen. It puts the hydrogen back through the cell and it powers the car,” said Newton High School sophomore Nate Paternoster.

Over 100 students from 11 high schools are participating in the 12th annual Hydrogen Fuel Cell Challenge hosted by TransOptions – the nonprofit transportation management association for northwest New Jersey.

“They get to design, build, and race their own hydrogen-powered vehicles, model cars,” said Daniel Callas, president of TransOptions.

The contestants use the last few minutes before the race to charge their cars before they make the journey on a 33-foot-long track. Paternoster is confident the car his team built will make it to the finish line.

“I’ve been working on it for like three weeks. I made sure everything was right. I tested it before we came,” Paternoster said. “We had a little fun with it; we put a small Pikachu on it.”

The competition is a way to promote STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, STEM jobs in May 2016 made up 6.3 percent of U.S. employment. Of that workforce, New Jersey has the highest density of STEM jobs in the country, according to the New Jersey Office of Research and Information.

“The jobs that are going to be needed now and into the future are going to rely heavily on technology and engineering skills,” Callas said.

“So the idea is to teach chemistry, physics and engineering all at once. And also the idea of sustainable fuel sources, like hydrogen fuel cells that are currently being used in California. They have the hydrogen cars being manufactured there and they have a hydrogen pipeline,” said Kristen Tomasicchio, environmental education manager at TransOptions.

New Providence High School senior Julia Zhu wants to be a computer scientist. She says this hands-on experience is essential.

“I think it’s important for everyone to at least try something like this once,” Zhu said.

“We do a similar program at the middle school level called junior solar sprints where kids use solar power to power their cars,” Callas said.

The host of the competitions says 75 percent of students who participated in the middle school version of the competition said they wanted to major in STEM in college.

“Those cars that have been winning in speed, craftsmanship, engineering and progress journals, we’re getting more all-female teams and it’s exciting to see that. But it’s also nice to see co-gender teams where it’s everyone working together,” said Tomasicchio.