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Potential solutions for real-world problems


The team from Normandale Community College in Minnesota explains how its water and energy hydrokinetic turbine works.

​Sean Kelly was calm, cool and focused when he made his two-minute elevator pitch about an innovation for water conservation.

“Do you know much about cooling towers? No? OK,” said the student from Colorado’s Red Rocks Community College as he first briefly explained the water crisis in his state, which could result the loss of up to 700,000 acres of farmland by 2050.

He then seamlessly and quickly transitioned into explaining how a new process his college team developed could save and reuse water from cooling towers that are used to cool many municipal and industrial buildings in Colorado.

Kelly then distributed a postcard on the Samsara Water Conservation project, noting that updates are available by texting “SAMSARA” to “22828.”

“Thanks for your time,” he concluded.

Red Rocks was among 10 community college teams that are finalists for the Community College Innovation Challenge, an initiative funded by the National Science Foundation and managed by the American Association of Community Colleges. The teams — comprised of students, a faculty mentor and a community/industry partner — were challenged to propose STEM-based solutions for real-world problems. For this year’s competition, the focus was on the nexus of food-energy-water. Project videos from the 10 finalists

Following several days of “boot camp” in Washington, D.C., where they heard from experts in various fields, from science to marketing, the teams gathered on Wednesday in a Senate building reception room where they exhibited their products and pitched them to attendees who ranged from U.S. senators and representatives, to officials from various federal agencies and associations. (They also pitched to a team of five judges who would determine the winners, see below.)

There was the Wind Catcher Max, wind-funnel technology that a team from Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania said was a better energy-gaining solution than solar panels and wind turbines. The team from Virginia Western Community College proposed a method to collect discarded apples and convert them into biofuel. Students from Northeast Wisconsin Technical College also focused on converting waste into energy — using stuff found in a junkyard to build a steam generator.

“Talk about innovation,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who made the rounds at the event, checking each project.

And the winners are….

On Thursday, the judges announced the winners. First place went to Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina for its project on energy efficient solar greenhouse using nanotechnology. There was a tie for second place: Normandale Community College’s hydrokinetic turbine project and Virginia Western Community College’s apples-to-fuel project.