Four teams of high school students have been awarded $5,000 each to pursue the product development of their innovative scientific ideas after the fifth annual Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge at NASA Ames this past weekend.
The winning teams, selected from a slate of 15 finalists pared down from 200 applicants from around the world, developed viable business projects in aerospace exploration, clean energy, and health and nutrition.
"The Conrad Challenge students are the 'innovation generation,'" said Nancy Conrad, founder and chairman of the Conrad Foundation. "Each year, we're inspired by the brilliance of these young entrepreneurs. When given the opportunity to design their future and create viable products to solve real world challenges, they never cease to amaze me."
Matt Linton, an information technology and cybersecurity expert at NASA Ames, mentored one of the winners—the Moonwalking Manakins from Cinco Ranch High School in Katy, TX—and helped the students with their "SPacemaker" device, which stimulates an astronaut’s heart contractions at a healthy pace in order to reduce heart atrophy and atrophy of other organs incurred during space travel.
"I was very happy that they won," Linton said. "They found me, as a mentor, so late in the game that I'd say they really did this entirely on their own."
Linton explained how he was humbled by these "smart kids."
"There are many good people who become arrogant and self-assured after too many successes in their field—particularly when 'expert' gets attached to the job title," Linton said. "I think mentoring a team for the Conrad Awards is a wonderful antidote to that inclination. There's nothing quite so humbling and inspiring as reviewing the work of a team of high-schoolers and having to go ask a colleague for help checking their math!"
Though they didn't win seed funding, a team from , Team Humatics, enjoyed their experience in the event.
Fifteen-year-olds sophomores Nikhil Sathe and Ameya Khare became involved after friends participated in the Conrad Awards the previous year. For their project they created a concept for a watch-like device that would harness kinetic energy from the natural everyday movements of humans.
Khare, who does track and field, came up with the idea one time that he went out for a run and his iPod shuffle ran out of battery.
"It was less than an enjoyable experience," said the video game playing teen. "I relied on a device, but it didn't have enough charge. It dawned on me that clean energy could charge it and that it would attract a large market."
Sathe and Khare, like the other teams, prepared the required technical aspects of business plan for their project for submission to the Conrad Awards. And between Thursday, Mar. 29 to Saturday, Mar. 31 the young inventor and entreprenuers pitched to a panel of expert judges.
"All of them are really good, but all different," Sathe said of the other finalists. "Coming up with a good proposal of which one is better is difficult."
The other winners of seed fundings included Team Infinity from West Salem High School in West Salem, OR who conceptualized an Infinity Suit that would utilizes a newly developed fabric constructed of phase-changing crystals to provide a better alternative to Liquid Cooling and Ventilation Garment (LCVG) used in astronaut spacesuits.
In the clean energy sector, Operation Gulliver International from Gulliver Preparatory in Miami, FL created a water filtration device that removes bacteria, pathogens and viruses from disease-spreading water in developing countries or those hit by natural disasters.
The health and nutrition team, Team H20 from St. Francis Academy in Conroe, TX designed a bicycle that purifies dirty water as the user rides for in developing countries that lack potable water.
The other Spirit of Innovation finalists took on some of the scientific challenges that their generation will face in the future, something that Team Humatics pondered.
"I once heard a quote, 'greatness comes from small beginning,'" Khare said.
"What we're doing is small but considering all the kids in our generation, if they come up with ideas they can take them and make them bigger to take on the challenges to come."
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