MAYS LANDING - Students at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology still work on real-world problems and focus on career skills, as they did decades ago when they mostly studied health care, cosmetology and automotive repair.

But now those problems are as complex as how to provide fresh water to developing countries. The skills they focus on include explaining newly engineered products to possible business partners.

A team of seniors - Jaythan Alvarado, of Mullica Township; Patrick Daly, 17, of Egg Harbor City; and junior Jerry Geese, 17, of Buena - won first place recently in their category at the NJ SkillsUSA Championship in Somerset County, where 1,600 students competed in more than 90 contests. The team designed a way to desalinate ocean water and provide electricity and dietary salt using geothermal power.

They will compete in the national SkillsUSA competition in Kansas City, Mo., this week, said teacher and adviser Melissa Hannan, who has a bachelor's degree in biology and environmental science from Richard Stockton College.

In the fall, Alvarado is headed to Norwich University in Vermont and Daly to the honors engineering program at Rowan University.

SkillsUSA is a national nonprofit organization of teachers and high school and college students who are preparing for careers in trade, technical and skilled-service occupations. It was formerly VICA (Vocational Industrial Clubs of America).

While it is open to any high school students, competitors come mainly from traditional vocational schools, Hannan said.

Cape May Technical High School students Austin DiCola and Patrick Haigh won a first place for Audio/Radio Production at the state SkillsUSA contest; and Farah Almadani, Joslyn Nelson and Chris Russ placed first for Law & Public Safety.

Another ACIT team of co-valedictorian Chris Frederickson, 18, of Ventnor; David Vassallo, 17, of Absecon; and Matt Whitley, 18, of Egg Harbor Township, won first place for System Control Technology at the state Technology Student Association competition at the College of New Jersey recently, and are heading to the national championships June 28 in Orlando, Fla.

TSA is an organization dedicated to helping students explore STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) concepts in co-curricular programs. For System Control Technology, the team must build a computer-controlled mechanical model to solve a real-world problem.

TSA attracts competitors from all types of high schools, said teacher and adviser Patti Czar.

The ACIT team won at the state level by designing the best system to deploy a flotation device on an airplane that crashes into water, Frederickson said. It was tested on a foam airplane model.

In SkillsUSA, students choose the project they want to work on.

In TSA competitions, they come to the competition ready for anything. TSA competitors are given a problem, and have 15 minutes to discuss it and devise a plan of action, Czar said. All competitors in the same category work on the same problem.

The teams then have four hours to develop their solution and build it. They have to bring all their own supplies, from computers and software to building materials, said Czar, who is assisted on TSA by teacher Charlie Olinda.

Frederickson will attend the honors engineering program at Rowan this fall. Vassallo will study computer science at The College of New Jersey. They have been on teams that won first place three years in a row in TSA state competitions, said Czar, who has a bachelor's degree in math and a master's in computer science, and teaches math and introduction to engineering.

Other ACIT students going to TSA nationals are sophomore Daisha Carson, of Mays Landing; sophomore Bertilio Correa, of Pleasantville; junior Robert Magomero, of Pleasantville; and junior Anthony Perez, of Ventnor; and sophomore Amani Reid, of Pleasantville.

A Millville Senior High School team of seniors Austin Gould and Yazmin Moreno won the state TSA Structural Engineering competition, and will compete in Orlando. They built a 16-inch box girder beam using balsa wood that held more weight than any other created by students from more than 50 schools.

ACIT and other technical schools are attracting more students than ever, with opportunities to study everything from pre-engineering and technical fields to culinary arts and health care.

Co-valedictorian Frederickson was a culinary student at ACIT who took a lot of engineering courses and participated in engineering clubs such as TSA and SkillsUSA.

"His blown sugar sculptures are amazing," Hannan said of Frederickson.

This year's graduating class has 130 members. Next year's freshman class will number 450, Hannan said.

Technology competitions help students see how their studies can affect their professional lives in the real world, said Hannan, whose assistant adviser for SkillsUSA is teacher John Menzel.

The other co-valedictorian of the Class of 2013, Michael Paule, 17, of Absecon, said he has been a competitor in SkillsUSA for years. While he never has placed high enough to go to nationals, he said developing his projects taught him a lot.

"I learned extemporaneous speaking (for presenting the project). It has been very helpful. You need to know that in the business world," he said.

Last year, when they were juniors, Ryan Kraemer, 18, of Smithville in Galloway Township; Ed Kertz, 16, of Germania in Galloway Township; and Matthew Whitley were first in the state and third in the nation for their SkillsUSA project.

Kraemer, 18, said representatives of tool and high-tech companies act as judges. Last year, he heard a national winner was immediately hired by a company to develop his idea.

Whitley and Kertz had some advice for this year's competitors, who also include Brent Ruga, competing in residential wiring.

"You have to have a big, obnoxious model," said Kertz, to catch the judges' eyes.

"Make connections and talk to everyone," Whitley said. "Get phone numbers - and I don't mean flirty numbers," he joked.

Contact Michelle Brunetti Post: