Budding inventors pitch their ideas for ‘impactful change’

It was “Shark Tank” without the bite. They are high school students.

On Saturday, they pitched the products they’ve been working on all school year to a panel of four judges who were more interested in nurturing ideas than knocking them down.

One innovation is a small, solar-powered fire sensor that is attached to trees in the backcountry, alerting emergency crews when a fire breaks out. Another is a trash can for parks that empties, eliminating overflow waste. A third, for the hearing impaired, converts speech to text in real time.

All shared a common goal: “impactful change”.

Known as Demo Day, the event took place at e3 Civic High School in downtown San Diego and attracted around 50 people. Six teams competed on Saturday, vying for $500 grants to further develop their projects. (The three mentioned above won.) Six other teams are expected to pitch on Sunday.

The program was organized by Project Invent, a Palo Alto nonprofit established in 2018 that trains educators and offers a curriculum to guide students through the inventing process. They spend months researching and refining ideas, designing prototypes and developing financial plans.

For James Pangilinan, a junior at e3 Civic High, it was a chance to combine his interest in computer programming with a lifelong passion for helping others. “Be the hero”, in his words.

His team has developed ControlVerse, an improved controller for people using deep brain stimulation to help manage tremors and other effects of Parkinson’s disease. The students were inspired by a school mentor who has the disease.

“Parkinson’s disease control is an issue that few people have to think about,” said the 17-year-old.

Working on it brought real-world challenges that went beyond what’s usually taught in the classroom, he added. This process – not just learning it, but doing it – is playing a greater role in education everywhere.

“A generation of kids came along and said, ‘I don’t want to be pigeonholed, and you gotta figure out how to introduce me to more stuff,'” said DeAndrei Sanders, dean of e3 Civic High.

Saturday’s Demo Day demonstrated another trend: more and more young women are interested in coding and engineering. Female presenters outnumbered males. (There were also more female judges.)

The teams came from e3 Civic High, Marlborough School in Los Angeles and Breakthrough Training Center in Arcadia. They gave five-minute PowerPoint overviews and answered questions from the judges about the origins of their products, the challenges they faced, and the lessons they learned.

Students also heard of Scott Swaaley, who followed the path that these budding inventors are currently exploring. He is the founder and CEO of MAKESafe Tools, a San Diego company created in 2016 to solve a particular problem: accidents involving industrial machinery.

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