The process begins early in the school year when interested students apply to enter the competition. During the program, they must identify a specific problem, research current products that address it and devise a functioning innovation or invention to solve it. Each invention must be built into a working model that is portable, self-contained and operates independently.
Students find the process includes a lot of trial and error, according to Mitch Masters, history teacher and Gates coach. There are seven faculty or staff coaches
who act as resources and assist with budgeting.
To document their progress, students maintain Inventors' Logs to journal, photograph and videotape the invention lifecycle. Four judges
, selected for their objectivity and status in the academic, business or engineering communities, review the logs in preparation for the competition.
At the expo, students display their hard work for the Graland community. They are prepared with a short description of their inventions and answer questions about the process. By the end, 10-15 finalists
are chosen to make a separate presentation to the judges, who evaluate inventions on certain criteria
such as functionality, creativity, marketability and clarity of communication.
Extraordinary ideas may receive a “patent nod” from the judges. Those projects receive additional funding for more in-depth research and design. If appropriate, Graland will hire a patent attorney to see the process through.
Recently, two former students were awarded patents for their Gates invention: Nathaniel Newman ’09 and Derek Lewis ’09
created a tube-shaped neoprene sleeve for frozen edibles such as Otter Pops. Four more have applied for the distinction and are awaiting approval.
As students explore ideas, take risks and ultimately invent a product for the competition, they learn important lessons on a variety of levels, a concept that would make Mr. Gates very proud.
"Graland is so fortunate to have this unique program that directly benefits our students," says Kristin Ryder, program director. "Mr. Gates had a strong belief in education and entrepreneurship, two ideas which live on through his endowment to Graland."
Only one other school, Cardigan Mountain School
in New Hampshire, has been similarly endowed by the Gates Family Foundation to offer this compelling program.