This year’s Virtual STEAM Tank Challenge received over 405 applications, with 325 student teams made up of more than 2,600 students qualifying for the STEAM Tank Regionals. The challenge is run by John Henry, senior manager, STEAM and Sustainable Schools at the New Jersey School Boards Association; and Jennifer Siehl, manager of STEAM Tank at NJSBA.

STEAM Tank, a year-round problem-based design thinking challenge, asks students to invent something new, solve a real-world problem they feel strongly about or design a product that can make the world a better place to live, work and play. This year’s event – the second time it has been held virtually – drew a high level of participation from New Jersey students demonstrating innovation and ingenuity.

Virtual mentoring and regional judging took place throughout February and March. This year, as in years past, student teams showed their determination, creativity and ability to find solutions to real-world issues they feel strongly about. For example, one team of high school girls devised a way to break down nonrecyclable plastics. The process would break down the plastic, leaving behind a harmless byproduct and preventing plastics from ending up in a landfill. STEAM Tank is not just about students learning about the content areas of STEAM, it’s often about students considering the human factor when designing and problem solving.

This year’s elementary school teams also demonstrated their brilliance and care for the environment and people. A fifth-grade team developed and implemented a program in their school to help other students deal with emotional and difficult times.

STEAM Tank also has a strong sustainability and climate change component, where students learn that they must consider the environment and climate change impacts when engineering a product. Every team must demonstrate care for ecosystems and the people and animals that live within these systems.

A Student Perspective

Here is an example of the powerful impact of the STEAM Tank Challenge from a student perspective:

Hello, my name is Audrey Schroeder of Ocean City Intermediate School. I am 14 years old, in eighth grade, and I have been doing STEAM Tank since I was in fourth grade. It has been a long time since I first walked into the computer lab. I could say that I remember it like it was yesterday. In reality, I have changed so much that it is hard for me to recognize myself from that period. But ever the writer, it has always been easier for me to document my words onto paper.

Fourth grade was a new experience for me. I was new to the school, new to the workload, new to almost everything. But I found solace in a club located in the computer lab, filled to the brim with students and ideas. I remember my partner for that year’s competition, a sixth grader who wanted to be a teacher. She came up with the idea of creating an app to help those who struggled with learning. I followed suit, and together we formed Education for a Cause.

Fifth grade came and I felt prepared. I had felt like I had known everything and that a year separated me and everyone else. This was the first year that I came up with our project for myself. My partners were two of my best friends. They understood my passion and helped me produce the idea of Bus Buddy. A seat pocket built and constructed for utility on a bus. 

Sixth grade came and I felt more competitive. I hadn’t won yet, but I knew this would be the year. Flash Dash was an augmented reality mobile game created to get kids exercising. It was a good idea, and I was sure I was going to win. And then, the world came to a halt around me. Suddenly, there was no winning or losing as the global pandemic continued and quarantine began. My sixth-grade year ended without me ever presenting my idea.

Seventh grade, I felt confused. While each day became more and more similar to the last, STEAM Tank suddenly became a feeble memory of the past. I had no idea how long it would be until I would go back to school. And then it was announced that we’d be going back to school half of the days, then it was announced that we’d be going back to school full time, and finally, STEAM Tank held its competition, and I finally got to present my idea.

Eighth grade has me feeling nostalgic – looking back on the past while hoping for a bright future. It is my past thoughts and feelings that made me who I am today. My fourth idea is called Luxiter. A light installed into the side of the road meant to deter pedestrian fatalities. The name literally translated into Latin means “Light Path.”

I was inspired when my neighbor had unfortunately passed away when she was walking home from the beach one night and was hit by a car. It was something that could’ve easily been prevented if Luxiter existed at the time. When the idea of Luxiter was created, STEAM Tank helped me flesh that idea out into reality.

STEAM Tank has been something that has stuck with me throughout my middle school career. I am forever grateful for how the competition and the people around me shaped me into the person that I am today.

NJSBA thanks Audrey for demonstrating her courage and commitment to success — and for sharing her experience with our STEAM Tank community. Clearly, being involved in STEAM Tank is making a difference with students in New Jersey.

STEAM Tank finals will start May 9, with 112 teams presenting their ideas in front of the judges. STEAM Tank judges ask questions and provide valuable feedback to the teams to improve their designs and inventions. As business and industry leaders, they represent the public and private sectors, school-based organizations and the U.S. Army. The judges played a critical role in the regionals, and this year, they will have to be on their game to judge the student teams in the finals. All 112 teams have incredible project concepts and inventions and have polished presentations.

This year, a combination of Webex, Zoom, Teams, and Google Meet will be used for judging to provide flexibility and the highest-quality virtual experience for student teams.

NJSBA is grateful to the PSEG Foundation for providing $15,000 in prize money for this year’s students. It also wants to express its appreciation to the judges for their dedication, commitment and volunteerism.

To join our growing STEAM Tank community, or to start a STEAM Tank program in your school or district, please contact us and follow us on Facebook.