In an informal exit poll, visitors to the 16th annual Gates Invention Expo thought the students were the most impressive part of the event, although their surprise at the diversity of invention ideas was a close second.
“This is just unbelievable,” said Amy Chapman, whose son Michael, Grade 5, invented the Bug FreeCap with his partner Remy Guillot. “These projects are so well thought out and their presentations are so polished.”
Expo day, March 3, was the culmination of a long road filled with determination, frustration and perseverance for the Gates program’s 113 Middle School students. To start, they were asked to consider what invention or innovation would make life better for someone. It’s a design thinking approach that uses empathy to motivate innovation and problem solving, according to Josh Cobb, head of Middle School.
“When solving problems, inventors need a deep understanding of the needs of others,” he says. “Those who use a design thinking curriculum must take time to generate this level of empathy before brainstorming, ideation and creation can begin. Since we brought this type of curriculum into our Gates Invention Program, we’ve seen students stretch their invention ideas from the mundanely practical to the truly transformative.”
Expo visitors were universally amazed at the high-level thinking they saw from middle school children.
“The thought process is just incredible,” said Toni Fresquez. “I can’t believe how they are looking outside their own lives and trying to do good for others.” Her granddaughter, fifth grader Belen Pizarro, developed the Extend-a-Gate, a modified baby gate that can be adjusted vertically and horizontally.
Leading up to the expo, inventors steadfastly tinkered away as they spent months working in the Gates lab to develop, create and refine prototypes of their ideas. Often, students took one step forward and two steps back as they experimented with different material and approaches to making their creations work properly. Gates coaches were by their sides to guide and offer encouragement, knowing failure is an important part of the learning process.
While the inventions themselves are the end result, they are only one part of the program. Inventors also maintained detailed logs, created visual and/or audio-visual displays and developed short verbal pitches to inform and educate visitors at the Expo. In case they were chosen as finalists, all inventors also developed expanded Shark Tank-style presentations for the judges to show their future plans to develop and market the ideas.
At this point, it becomes obvious which kids are motivated, focused and passionate about their work. First year Gates coach and science teacher Dan Barklund reflected on the process: “It’s fun to see how the inventions came together in the end. The last month was an explosion of productivity.”
The six Gates judges certainly had a challenge ahead of them. As they cruised around the room with notepads in hand, inventors demonstrated the merits of their products, answered questions and gave their best sales pitches.
“This has changed so much since I competed,” says Matthew Crowley, one of the program’s first inventors in the early 2000s and a 2016 Gates judge. “There are a lot more kids involved, and every one of them is a much better salesperson than I was. The quality has gone up dramatically. I love the focus on using the scientific method to develop the ideas.”
By the end of the day, 19 students were notified that they had advanced to the next round: the finalist presentations. They woke up with hopes of securing an award and possibly a patent nod. Patent nod is a recognition reserved for unique inventions that have potential for success in the market.
On Friday afternoon, March 4, the all-school assembly buzzed with excitement as all inventors were applauded not just for their work but also the learning process they experienced. Before the 2016 winners were announced, three patents were awarded to Gates inventors from 2013:
· Alie Goldblatt for Airplane Amigo, a soft, multi-use travel companion to make flying more comfortable
· Ellie Bain and Lena Schneck for Lean on Me, a portable seat that attaches to trekking poles
· Lily Fox and Cailey Karshmer for The All Chairain, a wheelchair modification that handles rough surfaces
To conclude the assembly, Gates coaches revealed the winners in each division as selected by the team of independent, volunteer judges. Congratulations to these ingenious students.
First Place: Luke Boris and Eph Esson with Bobber Boys
Second Place: Millie Bjork and Lauren Frankmore with Snap Click Play
Third Place (tie): Sophie Aalami and Olivia Goodreau with Tick Kit; Eleanor Goldstein, Keira Kastelic and Karina Kastelic with Glitter Cream Sunscreen
First Place: Matthew Nekritz with The No-Bag
Second Place: James Cobb and Alex Kechriotis with The Shnap 2.0
Third Place (tie): Sophie Goldberg with BREATHAlanche; Alec Romo-Nichols with The Urino
Two inventions, both placing second in their divisions, also received patent nods, a sign that the judges believe these ideas have potential to be developed and marketed. Perhaps we will see Millie, Lauren, James and Alex at a future assembly, accepting their patent awards.