They credit their hands-on education, their instructors, their learning - and their own problem-solving skills as reasons why a team of five Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College-New Richmond students took first place in a competition at PACK EXPO 2010, the world's largest packaging and processing event in 2010, held in Chicago this year.

The winning team included Tony Aubart (Dresser), Jim Briese (Wheeler), Chelsea Lambert (River Falls), Steve Volkert (New Richmond) and Matthew Woehrman (New Richmond), all members of WITC's chapter of the Institute of Packaging Professionals and second-year students in WITC's unique Automated Packaging program.

Competition was formidable in the second annual PACK EXPO U Student Design Competition, which is now part of Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute's annual international convention, an industry-wide event, with more than 45,000 attendees and 1,600 exhibits.

Second place went to Purdue University, and third place went to the University of Florida. Among other participants were Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology, Dunwoody College of Technology, U-W Stout and California Polytechnic State University.

"They knocked it out of the park," said WITC Automated Packaging instructor and IOPP advisor Kevin Lipsky. "Our students presented well and deserve this recognition. It was good, too, because all of the WITC officers of our packaging club were at PACK EXPO. The WITC chapter had a booth, too, and some said it was the best booth for schools at the show."

The challenge the students faced was to come up with a solution for a conveying system for a fictitious company called Uncle Charlie's Natural Flavors Tea Co. The company wanted to increase production, provide a variety of teas in its shipping containers - all in the most economical and simplest way.

"We increased production from 86 percent to 95 percent," Lambert said, "by adding an overwrapper at the point in the system where it bottlenecked."

In fact, the WITC team was the only one to address the bottleneck issue. The students also handily achieved production of two tea flavors at one time.

"It was difficult because the contest coordinators kept throwing changes in at the last minute," Briese said. "They changed the deadline by two hours and changed the original system. But that's real life - that's what a customer could do."

"It was my role to help them discover a solution to the challenge," said WITC Automated Packaging instructor Joe Krear. "I employed an ancient technique pioneered by Socrates to focus their thinking. I believe it was through the application of critical thinking skills that they arrived at a viable solution."

The group presented their solution via a 10-page written paper, a PowerPoint, a poster and a product mock-up to a panel of packaging industry judges, which included: Art Sagy, Kraft; Paul Redwood, Church & Dwight; Doug Farrell, Redco Foods Inc.; and Loc To, Unilever. The group was invited to the PMMI's Hall of Fame dinner, where they received the #1 recognition and award.

"We showed what we can do; and we did the best we could," Volkert said. "We showed our confidence in knowing how to solve the challenge."

Woehrman said he was happy to be a part of the winning team.

"Everybody did a part, so our achievement was well-deserved," he noted.

Thirteen WITC students who belong to the packaging club attended the PMMI convention, but only the five participated in the team challenge contest. They received the initial challenge outline at the end of September, and they got to work.

"We even talked with the different suppliers at the convention to see how realistic our solution was," Volkert said.

The five team members will split a $4,000 scholarship awarded as part of the competition among them.

The Automated Packaging program at WITC-New Richmond welcomes potential students to shadow in their classroom and lab. Contact Jodi Saliny at 715-246-6561 to set up an appointment or tour.

WITC's four campuses serve the educational and career needs of more than 25,000 residents of Northwestern Wisconsin each year. With multiple campuses, WITC offers career-focused associate degree programs, technical diplomas, short-term certificates, customized training and a wide array of courses for personal or career enrichment.