Clifton STEM students navigate virtual sailboats in competition

BY Raven Santana, Correspondent |

Equipped with only a laptop and their notes, three teams of Passaic High School students from Clifton assembled at the Harris Technology Center to remotely battle teams from Florida through video conferencing in an annual STEM competition called SailSim 2.

“So the Harris Design Challenge this year is actually about navigating a virtual sailboat on a virtual course through the use of programming. They interface with their virtual boat controlled through nothing but code to get it around obstacles to a goal,” said math and computer science teacher Nicholas Blath.

The competition is hosted by the Harris Corporation, a technology, consulting and engineering company that specializes in communication systems, electronic systems and space and intelligence systems.

“We’re very interested in bringing these students and these young, soon-to-be engineers into our business,” said Harris Software Engineer Manager Sal Iaccarino.

“It’s great for them to actually see people in the field doing what they do, getting access to a building like this, which is not something that’s normally available. I mean, even just the security clearance to walk down the stairs without this challenge, most of them would never be stepping foot in this building unless they got a job interview many, many years from now,” Blath said.

The competition is also an opportunity to encourage more girls to pursue STEM careers.

“It’s a great experience as girls, and I do talk to the girls about it. I said it’s huge. You’re opening doors, you’re making contacts for the future. Say, ‘Hey, I came to your challenge, can I have an internship,’ get an internship and it will lead to an employment opportunity,” said math teacher Lisa Weston.

“We just feel like this is an amazing event to put on our resume and hopefully get into those top colleges, or like one of our first choices, and we learn from this,” said junior Stephanie Ocampo.

Unlike traditional math or science clubs, the STEM program at the high school offers students a wide range of activities and real-world experiences in engineering and computer science fields.

“We are starting this pathway, which is a sequence of classes that have the end goal of preparing the students with the skills that they will need to be successful in college in a STEM career,” said Sergio Martinez, a science teacher.

High school senior Angel Mendez, who was recently accepted to Columbia University, credits the STEM program for his success.

“Programs like AP computer science, AP calc, that expose you to a higher level, so definitely these programs have been necessary,” Mendez said.

After watching students spend nearly five months designing artificial intelligence to pilot their virtual sail boats, the company says it’s considering starting a high school summer internship program for students wanting to pursue STEM careers.