Williamston High School InvenTeam Earns MIT Grant

Mar 21, 2012

A team of students at Williamston High School has been working on an invention that they hope will prevent drownings in the Great Lakes.

Funding for the project came from a Lemelson–MIT grant.

In the process, they’re learning about engineering and business.

The road from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Williamston was paved in 2003 with a pilot program designed to foster a passion for innovation in high school students. Since then, the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam Initiative has grown. It now hands out $10,000 grants to 16 high schools across America every year. This year, Williamston is the only school in Michigan to earn one of the grants.

MIT Invention Education Associate Justin Lai says Williamston was chosen for their Offshore Rip Current Alert, or ORCA System.

“The judges thought that it would make a really good project specifically because the problem they’re identifying is geographically unique and relevant,” says Lai. “While it’s not something that we require the projects to have, it makes the project a lot more appealing to people in the area.”

The students found that every year, more than 100 drownings in the United States are attributable to rip currents, including 11 on Lake Michigan last year. That led to their development of a buoy system they hope will alert swimmers when rip currents are dangerous.

Math teacher Dan Schab advises the team. He thinks they’ve shown a need for such a system, and that there’s nothing like it now in the Great Lakes.

“Many, many people drown every year in the Great Lakes, more than probably people realize,” Schab explains. “Many of those drownings are due to rip currents. Of course, the rip currents are those currents that take people away from shore. So when we were coming up with our idea, we thought what can we invent that’s not out there, and what can help people in the state of Michigan, so that’s why we came up with this rip current alert system.”

It sounds simple. A propeller measures the speed and direction of underwater currents, and when they pose a risk, a light flashes and there’s an audible alarm.

Designing the ORCA system has presented the team with challenges like energy efficiency and preventing water damage.

Williamston senior Spencer Ottarson is one of the team’s engineers.

“Part of the problem with leaving it in the water for a long time, for periods of months like we’re thinking of, is that it might require a lot of maintenance,” Ottarson says, “and if we try to market it, people are not going to want to buy it if they have to fix it every day.”

There’s no need to change batteries. The system is solar powered.

Senior Michael Robinson has also worked on the mechanics of the system. The project has helped him see the distinction between engineering and inventing.

“We start with this blank white board,” Robinson states, “and we go what are we going to do? This hasn’t been done before. We can ask questions, but no one knows the answer. We have to make the answer. It was much different than engineering, where it’s already been done before. You just have to recreate it in your own way.”

Along with engineers, the InvenTeam includes students who’ve helped promote the project. Junior Julie Xu has made presentations to the school board and others. She worked on a promotional pamphlet, too.

“We combine what everyone does and make it short and sweet,” Xu says, “so people can understand what we want to do, and they can easily pinpoint ways they can help.”

Community involvement was required by MIT. Most travel expenses are not covered by the Lemelson-MIT program, so the team needed to raise some money above and beyond the grant.

While hoping that their system will save lives, advisor Dan Schab adds that there could be lessons on maximizing its commercial potential at MIT’s four-day Eurekafest. The team will attend the event in June.

“They’ll have a lot of experts out there at MIT talking with us about whether or not this is something that should be patented,” Schab says, “and how to go about selling it and those sorts of things, so you never know.”

On March 27 , the Williamston High School InvenTeam will make a public presentation about the project at the McGoff Performing Arts Center, starting at 6:30 p.m.