The next generation of STEM innovators

What do the digital fabrication of a house to help alleviate homelessness and using viruses to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria have in common? They are among the projects that 10 selected community college teams will continue to work on as part of a national program to foster STEM innovation and entrepreneurship.

On Thursday, the National Science Foundation (NSF) — in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) — announced the 10 finalist teams for this year’s Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC).

The students on these teams and their faculty mentors will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Arlington, Va., to participate in an Innovation Boot Camp June 12-15. This intensive workshop immerses students in the thinking, skills and tools that help transform innovative ideas into entrepreneurial enterprises (Read “The ins and outs of a STEM entrepreneur”).

For this third CCIC, the student teams worked with a faculty mentor and an industry partner on innovative projects within one of three themes: maker-to-manufacturer; energy and environment; and security technologies.

“They responded with revolutionary projects that redesign solar panels, address issues of homelessness and defend against cyber attacks,” said Jim Lewis, head of NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources, which funds CCIC for NSF. “With creative thinking like this, we are confident that our investment in community colleges will produce a vital return in building up the U.S. science and engineering enterprise.”

Judging of the teams’ STEM-based solutions for real-world problems will take place at two events: a reception on Capitol Hill and the students’ final presentation before a panel of judges.

Each student on the top team will received $1,500; student on the second-place team will get $1,200.

Selected projects

Below are this year’s CCIC finalists and a summary of their projects.

Corning Community College (New York): Project WaterFED (Water Filtration and Economic Development)
Throughout the world, the amount of discarded plastic in communities whose inhabitants have difficulty obtaining drinking water is unacceptable. The team’s goal is to give these residents the tools to create water filters and other products by recycling discarded plastics. This approach aims to provide a cleaner environment, improved access to drinking water and better economic opportunities in the communities.

Bucks County Community College (Pennsylvania): Simply Secure
Imagine a device that’s small enough to fit in your pocket and intelligent enough to leverage the power of open source technologies to protect people and data from malicious actors. The idea behind team FringeHead’s innovation is to provide a low-cost portable device that small businesses and everyday users can use to connect confidently and securely to any wireless network, even if that network is compromised.

Oakton Community College (Illinois): Evaluation of Baking Oven Exhaust Recovery
Industrial bakeries can waste both energy and water due to little exhaust evaluation and a lack of efficient recovery technology. This project hopes to contribute to the development of technology by evaluating exhaust potential. The research effort was done by partnering with a local wholesale bakery. To overcome the challenges, the team created a new evaluation approach that combines exhaust measurements with data collected from various bakery processes.

Del Mar College (Texas): Slowing Antibiotic Resistance with EnteroSword
Bacteria resistant to conventional antibiotics treatment methods are becoming commonplace throughout the world. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control warn of the dire consequences that may follow if the problem is not addressed. Del Mar College’s biotechnology team advocates the use of tailor-made viruses that target such harmful bacteria. The team proposes using viruses to eliminate problem “bugs” quickly without endangering humans.

Forsyth Technical Community College (North Carolina): Renewable Energy Roof Tile System
The team’s renewable energy roof tile system offers a realistic alternative to fossil fuels and traditional solar panels by using energy not only from the sun, but from changes in temperature and physical forces like wind or hail. Historically, solar panels are more expensive and less productive than fossil fuels; the proposed system will be cheaper and generate twice as much power as traditional solar devices.

Henry Ford College (Michigan): Veteroil: An Alternative Energy from Yard Waste
About 200 million tons of yard waste fill U.S. landfills each year. This costs cities $7.3 billion. The team proposes an innovative and inexpensive method for extracting energy from yard waste. It calls the end product Veteroil. By trashing less waste and reducing greenhouse gasses by replacing fossil fuel with a bio-fuel, the team estimates that cities could save significantly by reducing yard waste disposal costs.

El Paso Community College (Texas): Paso Del Norte Solar Innovators
Heat is the enemy of all electronics, and solar panels are not an exception. As viewed in any IV curve for all solar panels, energy production is dramatically reduced once high temperatures are reached due to friction of electrons and high ambient temperatures. The team has created a material that will prolong the point in time that energy production is hampered by high temperatures. This material has an installation bracket that easily clips on the back of all standard panels.

Laney College (California): Laney College Pocket House Project
This project aims to overturn homelessness by creating safe, inexpensive homes that are quick to manufacture and simple to assemble with minimal waste. Using digital fabrication methods and equipment commonly found in FabLabs, the team’s innovative design solutions significantly reduce the cost for housing, making the best use of limited fiscal resources while providing the opportunity to support some of the most vulnerable members of the community.

Frederick Community College (Maryland): Recycled Solar Stations for Energy
There are many countries around the world that lack electricity. The team aims to tackle that issue by creating solar systems and generators powered by bacteria and recycled materials. The team will piggyback on recent research to determine experimentally the energy output of bacteria. They will work toward building a better bio-solar cell by changing the materials used in the electrodes of the cell using a miniature micro-fluidic, single-chambered device to house the bacteria instead of a conventional dual-chambered, bio-solar cell.

Red Rocks Community College (Colorado): Attackerspace Learning Environment
The cybersecurity industry doesn’t have enough experienced employees to combat the growing cyber threat. This project aims to bring students together to gain valuable hands-on experience by providing the tools and knowledge they will need in the cybersecurity field. The proposed innovation allows students to take a holistic approach to cybersecurity and learn how to defend against real-time attacks in a small enterprise network.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.