Engineering in Quarantine


Chloe Wong, Staff Writer

From socially-distanced track meets to virtual math competitions, athletic and academic endeavors at Arcadia High School (AHS) have taken a very different turn since the start of the pandemic. Arcadia’s Engineering Design and Development class (EDD) has been no exception. As one of the most involved extracurriculars at AHS, whether that means not having access to the same resources or finding it difficult to communicate with peers, the engineering team has had to adapt to the pandemic’s new parameters. And as with most activities from pre-COVID times, things are a lot less hands-on.

Take, for example, what would happen in a normal school year. Usually, EDD students participate in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Invention Challenge, a contest where students construct a machine that can accomplish tasks such as throwing rolls of toilet paper and moving ping pong balls. During the first semester of the school year, EDD members typically go to college campuses or the JPL headquarters to compete. Then, during the second semester, the engineering team participates in the For Inspiration and Recognition of Science Technology (FIRST) robotics competition. Students stay late after school every day for up to six weeks while they build a robot with the ability to complete tasks like shooting basketballs through hoops. Depending on how the team performs, it may place at regionals. 

But amidst the pandemic, this time around was a little different. Instead of participating in the JPL competition, EDD students took a swing at the Real World Design Challenge (RWDC), an annual competition that provides high school students the chance to apply their engineering skills to real-world problems. Students were instructed to design Unmanned Aircraft Systems with a corresponding plan of finance and operation. Unlike the JPL competition, RWDC was entirely virtual. 

“We designed everything on paper with no actual construction,” said senior Ethan Wong. “All the students worked and communicated over Discord, which made it really easy for the class to function in a socially-distanced manner.” 

This year, three Arcadia EDD teams claimed the top three spots in California, meaning that as the second semester continues, those winning teams are preparing for international competition. EDD students will also participate in socially-distanced competitions run by FIRST. There are three main competitions that students can enter: they can design an original product, come up with ideas for FIRST robotics competitions, or simply compile videos of past years’ robots to compete virtually. 

“Being on the engineering team was pretty strange this year,” Ethan said. “Not participating in physical competitions or going to campuses is bizarre, but overall, I think that the competitions were still interesting and engaging. I do prefer in-person competitions, so hopefully, we’ll get back to that soon.” 

As COVID-19 case numbers fluctuate from day to day, there’s no telling when Arcadia’s student engineers will resume their usual way of competing. But EDD’s sweeping success at competition proves that academic teams don’t necessarily need to be in-person to succeed; hard work, motivation, and innovative thinking are often enough to secure victory. 


Photo courtesy of JPL.NASA.GOV