JPL’s Invention Challenge goes international

For 19 years, the “JPL Invention Challenge” at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has pitted students against staff members in a contest to see who can design a device or process for completing a specified challenge in the most efficient manner.

More than 75 competitors accepted this year’s “Don’t Waste a Drop” challenge — to create an apparatus capable of conveying 250 grams of water and one 3-D printed goldfish to a second device at least 6 feet away — and on Friday morning, 27 regional finalists faced off for a winning trophy and serious bragging rights.

But, in a break with tradition, a 28th team was allowed to compete.

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A group of six male students and their teacher undertook the 10,000-mile journey from Feza Boys’ Secondary and High School in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to La Cañada Flintridge for a chance to test their building and design expertise.

JPL Invention Challenge founder and mechanical systems engineer Paul McNeal invited the team to participate as special guests after he was contacted by the boys’ teacher Dogan Aykurt. McNeal said he was thrilled to learn of the Tanzanian team’s enthusiasm for the event.

“They put in so much effort to come this far,” he said. “It’s fantastic.”

Aykurt, 27, had been involved in a spin-off “Invention Festival,” created from McNeal’s curriculum, while a graduate student at Yeditepe University in Istanbul. When he went to Tanzania last year to volunteer teach, he wanted his students to experience firsthand the curiosity and ingenuity the contest had evoked in him.

“My students must go to other countries to get information,” Aykurt said. “They want to get a good education from another country and then come back to their own country.”

Unlike their American counterparts, the Feza Boys’ team met with several material-related challenges during the process. With the nearest journey to a suitable supply store clocking in at seven hours, they had to make do with what they could find nearby.

They then had to disassemble and pack the device into a suitcase they could bring on the plane, Aykurt said. And team members couldn’t test the machine according to the contest specifications until after they’d arrived in Los Angeles on Thursday night, because they had no access to a 3-D printer and couldn’t find the right cup.

On Friday morning, with just minutes to go before “show time,” the six students were still figuring out how to make the cup tip after it was drawn up from a pipe with weights and a pulley. After several delays, they brought their device to the staging area — only to be disappointed when the cup failed to tip.

“Next year! Next year!” members of the audience called out in encouragement.

The winners of the day’s challenge were two teams from Oakwood High School in North Hollywood, called “Oakwood No. 1 and No. 2, and Los Angeles High School, who competed under the team name Diamond.

Raphael Michael, 16, said afterward he enjoyed the event.

“Our machine was not ready, and we didn’t know what to do,” he said. “But we tried, so I’m just happy.”

An undaunted Aykurt said he hopes to bring a team of female students to a future competition. After all, it isn’t about winning, but rising to the challenge.

“Maybe we couldn’t make a good machine, but we had a good idea,” he said. “If you do not have an idea, you can’t do anything. But if you do have an idea, you have a chance to make your dream work.”

For more information on the JPL Invention Challenge, visit


Sara Cardine,

Twitter: @SaraCardine