Competition Inspires Students To Be Inventive

By Tal Barak — June 23, 2004 4 min read
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While the mediocrity of U.S. students’ mastery of science and mathematics is well documented, a recent competition illustrates the possibilities for both the children and the future of science and technology.

In the finals of a yearlong competition held here June 11, eight national teams of students from kindergarten through 12th grade won prizes for new technologies that might be used 20 years from now.

Sixth graders Sophie Wiepking-Brown and Jon DermanHarris explain their invention, Ossific Gel, designed to heal fractures.
—Allison Shelley

ExploraVision is a competition for students in the United States and Canada. It is sponsored by the Toshiba Corp., the Toshiba American Group Companies, and the Toshiba American Foundation, and administered by the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association.

“Japanese businesses always think about how to improve their companies,” said Hideo Ito, the chairman and chief executive officer of Toshiba American Inc., the holding company for the Toshiba American Group Companies. But after watching how American companies wed their improvement practices with philanthropy, many Japanese ventures wanted to do the same, he said.

“We learned the American way to do business, and now, the Toshiba American Foundation dedicates itself to funding projects involving math and science education,” he said.

Practical Applications

The contest is designed to encourage students to discover and learn science, while working in groups of two or more, by choosing a technology that already exists and envisioning what it might be like 20 years in the future.

The eight winning teams—four first-place and four second-place finishers—were selected from a group of 4,695 entries representing the work of more than 14,700 students from both countries at the regional level, the first step of the competition. Students were judged according to grade-level categories and the respective abilities of students in those grades: K-3, 4-6, 7-9, and 10-12.

Elizabeth Evans, Josh Shorenstein, Kylise Hare, and Dorian Mattrey of La Jolla High School in California took first place in the high school competition. Their invention, the Nanoclotterator, an injectable blood-clot-eating robot of microscopic proportions, would be used to prevent blood clots.

“I believe that it’s feasible that this invention will be used in the next five to 10 years,” Mr. Mattrey said. The group chose to work on its invention because the members were concerned with the dangers of strokes. And, because of articles they read, they were concerned about the removal of blood clots.

Another invention, the E. colocator Gloves, a new technology out of John Burroughs School in St Louis, was the idea of 8th graders Lindsey Bauer, Nathan Gusdorf, and Hody Nemes. The special gloves would alert food handlers by changing color when exposed to harmful bacteria, helping prevent outbreaks of E. coli-related infection.

“If you think about it, those inventions are very practical for the community,” said Anne Tweed, the president of the NSTA. “Many of those projects are also safety-minded.”

Other inventions that won first-and second-place prizes include the Sleep Doctor, a device that would stop nightmares; the N.E.U.R.O.N., for Neuro Enhancing Units Restoring Offline Nerves, a method of restoring muscle action in the extremities of patients paralyzed by stroke or brain damage; and a Robot Ick Disposer, a machine capable of sniffing out, scooping up, and burning pet waste for fuel or compost.

“You’ve looked into the future, and believed you can make it better,” John Anderson, the president of the Toshiba America Foundation and one of the judges, told the students during the science-showcase ceremony. “What you’ve done is terrific—worked in teams, showed your talents, and communicated it to those of us that are scientifically challenged.”

An Early Boost

While trying to make the future look better, students opened an array of possibilities for themselves as future scientists. Bill Schlotter and Brett Lee were on a first-place team in 1998. Today, Mr. Schlotter is a graduate student at Stanford University, working on his Ph.D. in applied physics. Mr. Lee is in the field of mechanical engineering, working on walking robots.

“One of the great outcomes of this project is that 20 years down the line, you will be able to do this project, because you start early enough,” Mr. Schlotter said. “Now that I am in grad school, I can really see that the skills I learned from this project are the ones I mostly use here.”

Student members of the four first-place teams received savings bonds worth $10,000 apiece, and those of the four second-place teams each received savings bonds worth $5,000.

“This program supports the education of science in the schools,” Ms. Tweed said. “It allows students to investigate, which is important in the study of science.”

She said some schools have incorporated the ExploraVision competition into the curriculum. “It complements what the students are learning in classes, and since students like the competition, they engage in this program.”

Coverage of technology is supported in part by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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