Friday, November 20, 2009

Show your school spirit! (of innovation)

If you're a high school student, teacher, or parent, this post is for you. The deadline is coming up to register and submit project plans for the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards. Now, I'll admit to being a pretty massive geek in high school—Math Bowl, Science Bowl, Academic Decathlon. I pretty much signed up for every extra-curricular activity guaranteed to cement my status as a social pariah. But if the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards had been around in my day, I needn't have sacrificed cool for school. From a look around their website, it kind of seems like the X-prize for teenagers.

The competition is definitely about science, problem-solving, and technology, but there's a strong entrepreneurial aspect. The idea is to use your smarts to develop a product that's actually needed: good ideas get a $1000 grant, and winning teams get a $5,000 grant to develop their product further. There are four project themes that a team can work within: aerospace exploration, green schools, renewable energy, and space nutrition. Sounds like pretty hot stuff for up-and-coming tech entrepreneurs to think about.



Aerospace exploration
This category is wide open. Think tools for a future moon rover, an instrument on an unmanned spacecraft, a spacesuit for an astronaut landing on Mars, or a device that piggy-backs on satellites. How about an exercise machine for a lunar base, a plan for a lunar greenhouse, or a health monitor? Health-related tech could snag you a special award:
$5,000 National Space Biomedical Research Institute Prize for Innovation in Space Exploration Health Care will be awarded to one team for the best aerospace-related human health product.

Green schools
This one's in partnership with the United States Green Building Council. According to the EPA, 35 percent of waste generated in the US comes from schools. How green is yours? Projects could include assessing your school's carbon footprint or use of water, devising a plan to help your school save energy, or even just coming up with ways to make school a healthier, more pleasant place to learn.

Renewable energy
This category should need no introduction. Take a cue from William Kamkwamba who, as a teenager in rural Malawi, taught himself to build an electricity-generating windmill using outdated physics textbooks in the village library. Come up with a device that makes an everyday task run entirely on water, wind, solar power, or grass.

Space nutrition
Because the goal of this project is to produce a tasty, uber-fattening space treat, it's definitely my favorite. Will you go for the Power-bar-esque extruded recipe, bake your bar a la Cliff Bars, or whip up some old-fashioned granola staying power? Whatever recipe you decide to go with, make sure all the water molecules in your nutrition bar are bound to food, and not free to provide a growing environment for bacteria, yeasts, and molds. Winning bars must pack a whopping 375 calories into a paltry 100 grams of goodness, minimize crumbliness, and rate at least "6 or higher when tested using a 9-pointed hedonic scale"—actual astronauts might eat this stuff! I think it would be fascinating to be one of the judges.

Looks like today is the deadline to submit your spacebar recipe, but you can still register and sign on to one of the other challenges. That gives you a little less than a month to put together a technical concept and business plan.

These challenges may sound daunting, but the foundation's websites provides plenty of resources to help you along. There's an online forum for those 3 AM questions, and a searchable database to help you find experts on your topic. Simply turning in your paper ideas for a product could earn you a $1000 grant for R&D.

Looking for inspiration? Last year's winners came up with concepts for producing oxygen on the moon with algae, mining helium-3 on the moon, and a railgun launch system to replace rocket-powered travel from low earth to lunar orbit.

Today's happens to be the perfect day for coming up with bright ideas: mull over possibilities as you wait for the LHC to start up again.Thinking about product design? Check out these gorgeous photos of the LHC from the Boston Globe. Now that's some fine technology.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I am a high school senior and have an early admit from Dartmouth College. I am planning to major in Physics. I have been a pretty physics geek throughout my high school. Thus, i am participating this year in the Pete Conrad Spirit of Innivation Awards. My project is related to Renewable energy By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!!

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