Practical ideas for real-world challenges

Evi de Bois and the rest of the student team from California's Feather River College pitch their idea for a solar-powered water pump during the Community College Innovation Challenge poster session on Wednesday. (Photo: AACC/Nam Thai)

When Evi de Bois looks at a prototype of a portable, solar-powered water pump that her student team from California’s Feather River College (FRC) developed, she thinks about how it can help her fiancé, who is a federal wildland firefighter.

“I think about how this could help him when he’s out there,” said de Bois, who recalls the rash of wildfires across California and other states over the past few years. In fact, it was the 2021 Dixie Fire, the largest wildfire ever seen in California that destroyed more than 1,300 structures, that prompted the idea for “EVA-I,” which modified an existing fuel-powered water pump.

The FRC team was among 12 squads from community colleges across the country selected to compete in the 2023 Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC). The program, led by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) in partnership with the National Science Foundation, encourages student teams to develop innovative, STEM-based solutions for real-world problems.

FRC wasn’t the only CCIC finalist college thinking about the safety of firefighters. Houston Community College‘s team worked on a hands-free sensor to help firefighters navigate through blinding smoke in wildfires, burning buildings, collapsed structures and more.

Neeko Phelps of Houston Community College gives an overview to Celeste Carter of the National Science Foundation of the team’s idea for a device to help firefighters. (Photo: AACC/Nam Thai)

Fine-tuning at boot camp

Earlier this week, the 12 teams worked at a “boot camp” with experts in marketing, entrepreneurship, STEM and more to help hone their projects and ideas. They learned to make an “elevator pitch” for their project to potential investors, develop their product for market, take constructive criticism and more.

The student team from Colorado’s Red Rocks Community College, (RRCC) a perennial CCIC finalist, developed a safety watch for autistic children to wear when they are near water to help their caretakers monitor them. When a CCIC coach asked the team members if the watch could be used for other purposes, such as monitoring pets, they promptly augmented their product pitch.

“It was totally different,” said RRCC student Cassidy Holman.

All 12 CCIC finalist teams and their projects.

The team from Virginia Western Community College also adjusted its pitch after conversing with CCIC coaches. Its “Sort-A-Tab” mechanism was designed to help a local Ronald McDonald House more quickly sort through beverage can tabs for its fundraising efforts. But the team soon realized its idea to magnetically — and quickly — separate aluminum and steel tabs could have other applications.

“The light bulb went on for us,” said student Daniel Holt, an Army retiree.

Other innovations from the teams also had roots in personal challenges. For example, the Borough of Manhattan Community College team designed an app for dementia care that healthcare professionals, families and patients could use. It was developed with one of the team member’s mother in mind, who was taking care of a family member with dementia.

Several of CCIC teams noted that they came from science backgrounds, such as engineering and chemistry. They had the science behind their ideas down, but they weren’t as confident in making the right pitch for their product to potential investors, ala the TV show “Shark Tank,” or in developing a marketing plan.

“Learn who is your target audience and find out what problems potential customers face,” were among the lessons FRC student Iliana Nye said she learned at the boot camp.

Pitching their products

Following three days of getting feedback, the 12 teams headed to Capitol Hill on Wednesday afternoon for a poster session at the Rayburn House Office Building, which houses offices for many members of Congress. Later, the teams pitched to a panel of judges that would select winners of the competition (see below).

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) stopped by to see the innovations, especially the ones by students from two New Jersey community colleges: Bergen Community College (BCC) and Hudson County Community College (HCCC). The BCC team developed a kit for making a battery-powered go-cart to spark students’ interest in STEM, especially in electric vehicles (EV). Student Sebastian Mattio-Smith observed during his team’s pitch at the poster session that there will be a shortage of 16,000 skilled EV technicians by 2032.

“This go-cart may inspire students to go into that field,” he said.

Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) chats with students from Hudson County Community College. (Photo: AACC/Nam Thai)

The HCCC team, meanwhile, presented its idea for software to set exact color filaments, which is important in fields such as printing and manufacturing.

And BCC wasn’t the only team with an EV-focused idea. West Hills College Coalinga in California had an idea for a battery that is more affordable, durable, ecological and safer than current batteries used in EVs.

“We need people like you more than ever,” Gottheimer said in a speech to the participating teams, noting the importance of innovation in a global marketplace. He said he met earlier in the day with officials from automakers and told them he was going to check out the EV ideas at the CCIC poster session.

High praise

The teams also received kudos from AACC President and CEO Walter Bumphus and encouragement from James L. Moore III, assistant director at NSF’s Directorate for Education and Human Resources.

“This Community College Innovation Challenge brings out the best of the best at our community colleges,” Bumphus told participants and guests at Wednesday’s poster session.

James Moore III (left, in bow tie) of the National Science Foundation talks with the team from Borough of Manhattan Community College. (Photo: AACC/Matthew Dembicki)

Moore followed along the lines of Gottheimer in emphasizing the importance of innovation, CCIC and community colleges, in general. He said there is currently a “Sputnik-like moment” in the global STEM race, and community colleges are tapping into a segment of the U.S. population that often doesn’t get an opportunity to shine their ideas and skills.

“Never let anyone tell you what you cannot do,” he told the participants.

Moore also noted the importance of teamwork on the CCIC projects, which conveys how innovations are fostered in the real world, and he gave particular thanks to the CCIC mentors for their counsel and support of the teams.

“You can’t do noble work without a team,” he said.

And now the winners…

The top three winning teams announced Thursday afternoon are:

First Place: Houston Community College (Texas) for its Project Eagle Rescue, a hands-free device that will analyze in real-time if there are any obstacles, structural failures or victims that firefighters would otherwise be unable to see through smoke and fire. Team members are Kaitlin Asch, Nyah Lovick and Neeko Phelps, with mentor Ravi Brahmbhatt.

Second Place: Woodland Community College (California) for its Location Emitting Emergency Ring (LEER), which is a finger ring that includes GPS tracking, live audio feed and a panic switch. Team members are Amna Ali, Marco Medina and Melissa Miller, with mentor Lorena Navarro.

Third Place: Feather River College (California) for its EVA-I, a revamped mobile, solar-powered water pump used by wildland firefighters. The team members are Evi de Bois, Iliana Nye, Ashley Vernon and Emma Leff, with mentor Nicole Grose.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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