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Young inventors set out to solve old problems

By Stacy A. TeicherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 21, 2006



CAMBRIDGE, MASS.

For 18 teams of teen inventors, months of brainstorming, building, and testing finally culminated last weekend at the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Odyssey.

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Rather than pitting students against one another for awards, the program vets project ideas at the start of the school year and gives grants of up to $10,000. Each team comes up with its own problem to solve.

When students arrive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from public and private schools across America, it's a chance for them to show off prototypes and hear feedback from fellow teams, members of the MIT community, and local businesspeople.

Teams are encouraged to collaborate with university and business partners. That requires a range of skills, including project management and public relations. The hope is that even students who don't see themselves as math or science whizzes will think more broadly about careers in these fields.

"It's essentially a small company, and everybody can find a place," says Joshua Schuler, InvenTeams grants officer.

Thirty percent of the participants are female, and 40 percent of the teams include underrepresented minorities – numbers that Mr. Schuler hopes to increase. Encouraging that diversity creates a better pipeline to fill the high demand for scientists and engineers, he notes.

InvenTeams is one of the activities of the Lemelson-MIT Program, created in 1994 and named after prolific 20th-century inventor Jerome Lemelson. Funds come from the private Lemelson Foundation, which is dedicated to honoring and inspiring inventors.

Here are a few projects:

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, Alexandria, Va.
Neural-directed wheelchair

Biology teacher Paul Cammer must be a pretty trusting guy. He sits in a wheelchair, wearing a black cap from which blue wires protrude. Scurrying around him is a team of seven students, some peering over his shoulder at a laptop, others poking at switches in a cardboard box attached to the back of the chair, where the wires from his head attach to a device that sends wireless signals to the laptop.

If Mr. Cammer looks tense, that's OK. When he's tense, the signals from his brain turn the wheelchair left. When he's relaxed, it turns right. His EEG cap (short for "electroencephalogram") detects small voltage changes from his brain activity. The students calibrate the laptop to direct the chair according to those patterns.

They worked with scientists from the Krasnow Institute for Advanced Study at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

During the demo, a few students stay nearby, ready to grab the chair if it veers too close to inattentive bystanders. The control isn't as precise as they'd like, but "it's really satisfying to actually see him turning around and doing tricks," says team member Dan Klayton.

Nerinx Hall High School, Webster Groves, Mo.
Portable water filtration system

Every year, a group from this Catholic school for young women takes a service trip to Mexico. The InvenTeam decided to help friends there, especially women and girls, with a tedious chore: hauling water.

A giant blue barrel is cradled in a metal frame on wheels, which can be made out of recycled bicycle parts. Nicki Shamel knows it's easy to push because her friends tried it – loaded with 180 pounds of water, plus Nicki sitting on top.

The filter consists of a layer of sand, a layer of activated carbon, and a layer of porous clay. The filtered water is 95 percent pure, but they're working to reach the required 99 percent. They know of ingredients that would bring the purity level up, but "we want to achieve it in a way that won't be expensive, so they can do it themselves," says student Lydia Caldwell.

This spring, a student and teacher took a prototype to Mexico to test. "People were in disbelief – they thought we dyed the water," Nicki says, pointing to photos of the water before (a mustard color) and after (crystal clear).

Physics teacher Julie Sutfin says the students learned so many skills that will come in handy in life, such as how to change the blade of a utility knife and how to build a fire. But the biggest revelation was the "nonlinear cycle" of inventing. At first, it wasn't easy for these high achievers to realize that great ideas can grow out of failures, she says. Over time, "they became much more persistent and determined, and took those pitfalls in stride."

John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, Boston
Portable automatic blackboard eraser

Twelve seniors at the O'Bryant School picked a problem that fellow students and teachers could relate to – erasing chalkboards eight or more times a day. The dust aggravates health problems, they say, and some teachers have trouble reaching the top of the board.

Their solution: A tall yellow contraption that attaches to the top and bottom of a blackboard and has a motor that rolls it one way and then back again. The yellow cotton cloth that catches the chalk dust can be easily removed and washed.

Their workshop houses a collection of earlier models that flopped.

"We'd think, 'This is such a great design,' but when you'd actually do it, there was always something wrong," says Lidza Louina, who plans to study computer engineering. Once they got it working and realized it would cost $250, they surveyed teachers and found many were willing to buy it.

"It's not bad to be stubborn," team member Frank Cao says. "I call it perseverance. There are times when you're really frustrated ... but if you go around it, you find a better way."

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