Beacon of Innovation: Innovation Center InvenTeam Sets a Shining Example

Beacon of Innovation: St. Vrain's Innovation Center InvenTeam Sets a Shining Example 

It’s the process, not the product. This piece of educational wisdom, especially popular in early childhood, can serve us well throughout many aspects of life. Then again, sometimes process and product become so intertwined they attain a rare gleam wherein neither is completely distinguishable from the other. So it might be said of the incredible journey undertaken, and the product created, by a team of 12 Innovation Center students from Erie and Skyline high schools, 2017-2018 recipients of a prestigious $10,000 grant from the Lemelson-MIT program to transform their idea of an affordable, portable emergency beacon system into reality.

Heading into its 16th year, the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam initiative inspires youth to invent technological solutions to real-world problems of their choosing. InvenTeams are comprised of students, teachers and community mentors in invention projects that span at least a year, engaging students in creative thinking, problem-solving, and countless hands-on learning experiences. To be involved is an invaluable opportunity, one which requires energetic, unwavering commitment beginning with the initial application alone.

In order to be in the running for an InvenTeam grant, applicants must begin the process one and a half years before a potential grant would actually be received. Innovation Center Program Director John Steckel applied in the fall of 2016, taking a somewhat less conventional route. “Lots of schools approach the process with a project and team already in mind,” Steckel says. “I applied based on the strength of our senior design project teams and our unique structure as a center. I didn’t have a specific invention, but put forward our process, the way we work, and a couple of possible ideas based on brief meetings with students.” Steckel’s application proved compelling, and it became one of 35 granted the opportunity to apply for the second, formal phase of the grant. He was also awarded a trip to Boston in the summer of 2017, invited to watch the previous year’s winning teams present their projects at EurekaFest™, a festival brimming with successful and influential entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industry experts.

Following EurekaFest™, Steckel returned and began recruiting students for an InvenTeam project team, and teachers to oversee them. “From there, everything became student-driven,” Steckel says. “I didn’t write the grant; our students did.”

Ultimately, 12 students comprised the team: Tanner David, Lindsey Deaver, Kathryn Huonder, Nathan Hutson, Derek Meadows, Anders Nybo Tempel, Hogan Warlock, Patrick Cummings, Benjamin Dashiell, Morgan Stoner, Ethan Wright, and Sinjin Gudenkauf. Teacher leaders were Scott Duckworth from Skyline High School and Kelsey Rasmussen from Erie High School.

“Initially I was nervous about the team’s size,” Steckel acknowledges. “Generally, teams are made of five to eight students. Large teams, maybe eight to ten. I was a little concerned at first about such a large group managing in a way that they could communicate effectively and all play a valuable role. But I am incredibly proud of how they managed themselves. They really grew together as a team. Everyone played an important role.”

The team brainstormed several design ideas, honing in on a beacon system incorporating drone technology to serve community out of range or suffering interrupted cellphone service in events such as natural disasters. They worked with a range of community mentors, strategically exploring ways of making the technology as lightweight, long-lasting, and affordable as possible.

Team members naturally gravitated to different roles, including communications, engineering, and budget leads, and an overall-project manager. Each participant embraced the process with dedication, eyeing the goal of supporting community foremost. “The project was a proving ground for our entire group,” says Erie High School senior Tanner David. “Our group had to collaborate with multiple businesses and agencies across the state. Overall, it gave me a valid insight to the engineering world.”

In October of 2017, the team received the news that they were among the 15 selected across the nation to receive the grant with some initial bewilderment alongside excitement. Then they really got down to work. “It was a super long year, but it was good--easily a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” says Erie High School Senior Patrick Cummings. “Trying to figure out the engineering, the project was nothing I would have experienced anywhere else. It was super crazy, and I feel super fortunate I was able to be on this team.”

Throughout the year, the team diligently worked on developing their invention and troubleshooting by partnering with community resources. Last spring, they met with the Boulder County Rescue Team, who arranged a simulation of a real life scenario which would utilize the project. This and many other experiences, led to modifications, improvements, and lasting connections that would greatly impact all who were involved. “This experience really set a foundation for what I want to do with my life,” Cummings says. “I know now I want to do something with engineering, build something that will help change people’s lives, and work with a team.” Cummings adds that he is starting to apply for colleges, focusing on those with specialized engineering programs.

Traveling to EurekaFest™ meant lots of mingling, networking, learning, socializing, a special presentation ceremony...even bubbles and puppies. The festival may have been the pinnacle of the InvenTeam journey, but it was certainly wasn’t the end. While the majority of team members have now graduated, Cummings and a few other seniors are working on fine-tuning the technology and examining the business side of things further this year, ideally seeing it become implemented in the community. “Even though we don’t have the grant money this year, we have what we spent the money on, which is our actual working project,” Cummings says. “Plus we have connections we made-- with local search and rescue crews, Boulder County S.W.A.T., Boulder County police. We can really hit the ground running.”