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An Early Start on Innovation

Thu, 12/15/2011 - 4:28am
Lindsay Hock

Corporations inspire the next generation of researchers to embrace science and innovation.

R&D December YIOY Agilent Image

Girl Scouts in Phoenix work on the Electronic Matching Game, one of 22 Agilent After School kits. Photo: Agilent

In order for technology companies to bring innovative products to market, they need enthusiastic, educated scientists and engineers to drive the process. To inspire the next generation of researchers, some industrial developers are going back to school.

A 2011 Harvard University study found that U.S. students ranked behind 31 other countries in math and science efficiency, and fewer than one in three students are proficient in science after high school.

A recent teleconference held in October by STEM Connects, a curriculum and career development resource from Discovery Education—an educational resource for teachers—reported that 10 to 15% of students in the U.S. enter college as science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) majors; in China that number is 30 to 40%, paving the way for a scientific and technological advantage for that nation.

"I think people need to realize that a lack of students going into STEM fields not only affects the learning curves in schools, but it also affects our global competitiveness and our ability as a nation to innovate," says Jennifer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemens Foundation, Iselin, N.J. "If we don’t have a smart workforce, we are not going to have sophisticated R&D happening."

To drive more interest to these fields, industrial companies are helping students understand the importance of science and mathematics, and are promoting STEM education and innovation to the next generation.

From school to scientific discovery
"One of the keys to innovation is engaging the future scientists and engineers of our nation," says Tom Buckmaster, president of Honeywell Hometown Solutions, Morris Township, N.J. "The more students that have an interest in science and math means the possibility of more scientists and engineers our society could have, which will expand our nation’s capacity for innovation."

Agilent Technologies Inc., Santa Clara, Calif., promotes hands-on learning to enhance understanding of basic science concepts. The company has created the Agilent After School program, a hands-on, experimental science program targeted at children from the ages 9 to 13. The program has reached 550,000 students globally; and Agilent has invested around $3.5 million in the program in the past 10 years.

The program features 22 kits or projects that range from simple experiments for elementary school students, to more complex experiments that require advanced critical thinking and measurement skills for high school students. Projects include creating electronic circuit boards and balloon- or solar-powered cars, learning how to clean up oil spills, and solving a crime scene mystery. Held at universities and other local facilities, Agilent employees teach the students the basics about their projects and what they are creating, providing the students with knowledge that they can take back to their classrooms.

"Students really love the hands-on aspect of the projects, and in turn love leaving with what they built," says Terry Lincoln, Agilent Technologies’ global signature programs manager. "They also love the engagement between themselves and the employee running the program and talking about their project, making them want to take their projects outside of the program and into the classroom."

Science hits the road
Morris Township, N.J.-based Honeywell International has partnered with NASA to create FMA Live!, a program that explains Sir Isaac Newton's laws of motion in an exciting and entertaining way. The MTV-style interactive traveling show teaches basic science concepts and engages future engineers and scientists in the seventh to ninth grades.

FMA Live! features high-energy actors, music, videos, and demonstrations to teach Newton's laws of motion and the process of scientific inquiry. During each performance, students, teachers, and school administrators interact with three professional actors on stage in front of a live audience.

The Next Generation Races to Build Solar Homes

Universities and government agencies also encourage students to innovate. In the U.S. Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon, college students put their interest in engineering and architecture to the test. The competition challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost effective, energy efficient, and attractive to the public. It also provides participating students with training that prepares them to enter the clean-energy workforce.

Since 2002, the program has involved 92 collegiate teams and 15,000 participants. The teams pursued multidisciplinary course curricula to study the requirements for designing and building energy-efficient, solar-powered houses. To win, the designs must be innovative and green.

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A computer-generated rendering of the Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology's CHIP.

To encourage interest, students in elementary and secondary schools in the Washington, D.C. area visited on class tours.

Although a government-sponsored event, industry plays a large role, helping teams with materials and house concepts. Dow Solar, a part of Dow Chemical Co., sponsored two teams in this year's event. The Empowerhouse team from Parsons The New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology, and the CHIP team from Southern California Institute of Architecture and California Institute of Technology, received Dow POWERHOUSE Solar Shingles and Dow insulation material for their design concepts.

The Empowerhouse team also worked with Habitat for Humanity on a Washington, D.C. home, which consumes up to 90% less energy for heating and cooling than a typical home in the area. The house features linear fluorescent and LED lights with wireless switches and occupancy/daylight sensors; a highly efficient energy recovery ventilation system that keeps the interior temperature stable; and green roof modules integrated into the electric photovoltaic system that modulates the temperature extremes on the roof.

The CHIP team’s prototype, which placed sixth in the competition, was designed to fit into a small footprint in the Los Angeles landscape. The exterior skin is made of low-cost billboard material fastened with zip ties, dowel rods, and lag screws. A whole-house fan performs a complete air change in less than 20 min. A custom iPad application displays real-time energy use, controls the shades, and provides instant feedback. A 3D cameras tracks movement in the house and adjusts the light accordingly, to create a flexible and comfortable California home environment.

The actors use a large Velcro wall to demonstrate inertia when a student jumps off a springboard and is immediately stuck to the wall. Go-carts race across the stage to illustrate action and reaction. Extreme wrestling and a giant soccer ball show how force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. All three laws are shown simultaneously when a participant—usually a teacher or administrator—rides a futuristic hover chair and collides face first with a gigantic cream pie, exciting the students and providing lasting and memorable lessons, says Buckmaster.

Competition breeds innovation
While these programs have entertainment value, the ultimate goal is to encourage students to continue STEM studies and foster innovation and scientific discovery. The Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology has produced results. Since 1999, the competition has honored high school students who produce doctorate-level work in science. Many students who submit projects to the competition are looking for commercial uses for their research, inventions, and innovations—and already hold or are seeking patents.

Individual winners have included Ryan Patterson, who in 1999 created a glove that transcribed American Sign Language into text to better help disabled people communicate. In 2010 Benjamin Clarke, a 15-year-old from Pennsylvania, analyzed the spectrum of a dwarf star in a project titled the "Close Binary Fraction". The 2010 winning team created a computer algorithm that can analyze emotions expressed through speech, which the team hopes to implement in smartphone technologies.

Retaining and fostering STEM students in higher education is another challenge. DuPont has created The Young Professor program to encourage professors to stay in an academia setting to help make an impact on students and still innovate in a given research area.

DuPont employees nominate non-tenured faculty—ages 26 and higher—who are within their first five years of teaching and need help to pursue scientific discovery. DuPont awards grant money for research to a dozen or more recipients each year.

"The program itself has been extremely successful and there have been over 500 recipients since its beginning in 1968," says Randy Guschl, director of R&D at DuPont. "The Young Professor grant is three years of unrestricted funding for $25,000 a year."

Make a difference, at any age
Science-based competitions demonstrate to students that they can make a difference on a large scale. Sponsored by the Siemens Foundation, the We Can Change the World Challenge is a competition for elementary, middle, and high school participants that engages students in sustainability practices. At the elementary school level, students look at ways they can impact their classroom environment and home, such as turning off the lights. Middle school students examine how to make an impact on their communities; high school students work to make a global impact.

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A student demonstrates how the sticky wall acts as an “outside force.” Photo: Honeywell Hometown Solutions

Through the competition high school teams have developed a functional fuel cell, solar cell, and other energy technologies that are, or could be implemented in third-world countries. Middle school students in Iowa changed state legislation on the use of wheel weights, replacing lead weights with steel wheel weights. The Environmental Protection Agency is considering the regulation on a national level.

Invent Now, a non-profit organization that recognizes and encourages invention, has in the last 21 years awarded more than $1 million to winning college students for their innovative work and scientific achievement through the Collegiate Inventors Competition. The Abbott Fund, the non-profit foundation of the global health care company Abbott, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, and the United States Patent and Trademark Office sponsored the 2011 competition.

This year, Kyle Allison of Boston University was honored in the graduate category for a new therapy to eliminate bacterial persisters. A team from Yale University, Elizabeth Asai, Nickolas Demas, and Elliot Swart, was honored in the undergraduate category for a handheld imaging system that helps to detect potentially cancerous skin lesions. Other college and university students chosen as finalists for the competition come from the biomedical engineering, cancer research, and information technology fields.

Toyota's Ideas for Good campaign spurred innovation among the public. Beginning in 2010, the campaign challenged the nation’s public to look for alternative, non-automotive uses of five specific Toyota technologies: T.H.U.M.S. (Total HUman Model for Safety); Solar Powered Ventilation System; Hybrid Synergy Drive; Advanced Parking Guidance System; and Touch Tracer Display.

"Our campaign was set in motion to inspire people to innovate on their own and come up with great ideas that will hopefully benefit the world for good," says Bob Zeinstra, Toyota national manager of advertising and strategic planning. "The core of innovation is taking something that is being used for one certain application and then leveraging it to be useable for another application. This is what we challenged the public to do."

The winners of the competition ranged in age from 21 to 47. Winning ideas included using T.H.U.M.S. to build a better bicycle helmet; using the Solar Powered Ventilation System to remove smoke from indoor cooking fire in homes in impoverished areas; using the Hybrid Synergy Drive to create a power plant gym; and using the Advanced Parking Guidance System to develop an enhanced automated firefighting extension ladder guidance.

"We wanted to set up another entity of a non-profit or academic base to take ownership of the ideas developed so they can move them forward," says Zeinstra. "In our case, that turned out to be Carnegie Mellon University. And now they will carry on the spirit of innovation from what has already begun."

Carnegie Mellon will use grants to educate students and investigate practical solutions for the top 25 ideas.

Investment from industry through programs, competitions, and even traveling shows, are showing the possibilities of innovation to the next generation of R&D leaders.

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