CCIC can open new paths, opportunities for students

Neeko Phelps (center) and colleagues on a student team from Houston Community College pitch their idea for a device to help firefighters during the poster session of the 2023 Community College Innovation Challenge in Washington, D.C. (All photos: AACC/Nam Thai)

Being a member of the Houston Community College team that won the 2023 Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) has improved Neeko Phelps’ life in intangible and quantifiable ways.

“The CCIC helped me to become more confident in my ideas. I am no longer afraid to defend my ideas,” Phelps wrote in a recent survey. And then in a recent interview, Phelps explained how CCIC factored into him obtaining an internship that pays $23 per hour and being selected by Minnesota State University, Mankato for at $10,000 S-STEM scholarship.

Phelps describes the $3,000 CCIC prize he (Phelps’ preferred pronoun) received as a member of the first-place team as a life-changing benefit because it helped pay for a customized wheelchair.

“It’s really opened up my life to be able to have my own wheelchair to my own specifications,” Phelps said. The lightweight wheelchair makes it possible for him to move about independently on campus, at work and in the grocery store despite having severe scoliosis.

2024 CCIC deadline

April 2 is the deadline for CCIC teams to submit their written entries and 90-second videos that explain their ideas for solving a problem of their choice.

A “CCIC Application Idea Vetting Session for Students” will be held on February 15. Register for this Zoom session where students can ask questions of a former CCIC judge and student participant, as well as representatives from the American Association of Community Colleges and the National Science Foundation (NSF), which partner on the program.

Up to 12 teams will be selected for the 2024 Innovation Boot Camp June 10-13 in Washington, D.C. Each finalist team member and their mentors receive full travel support and $500 cash honorariums to attend the boot camp, where they receive coaching to build their strategic communication and entrepreneurial skills.

Neeko Phelps and HCC teammate Nyak Lovick head to Capitol Hill for the poster session.

The finalist teams also participate in a Student Innovation Poster Session, an engagement opportunity with STEM leaders and congressional stakeholders, and a pitch presentation in front of a panel of industry professionals and entrepreneurs.

The panel selects the top three teams and each member of those teams – including mentors – receive awards in the following amounts: $3,000 for first place; $2,000 for second place; $1,000 for third place.

A place to grow

Phelps urges all community college students to try for this opportunity to attend the Innovation Boot Camp, where he said felt “the combined intellect in the room” and lots of support, even from people on other teams.

Phelps and teammate Kaitlin E. Asch enjoy a moment at CCIC.

“Everybody wanted everyone else to win for various different reasons as much as they wanted themselves to win,” Phelps said, adding that his favorite part was talking to the other community college students.

“It was one of the best weeks of my year. It was also one of the hardest weeks,” Phelps said.

The challenges were also good things, like trying to balance learning from the expert presenters with enjoying D.C. sites and making late-night refinements to the team’s presentations.

Competing on campus

Even before traveling to D.C., Phelps said the competition boosted confidence. HCC had so many CCIC teams that it had a mini-competition to select two projects to represent the college in the national competition.

Phelps chats with Celeste Carter of the National Science Foundation.

In April, when the HCC team learned that its idea for a device to help firefighters find people and animals in smoky conditions qualified for the Innovation Boot Camp, Phelps was on the fence about transferring to a Texas university or enrolling in the Iron Range Engineering program in Minnesota.

Phelps decided, “If my team was able to get one of the top 12 across the states and we’re getting out to D.C., then I will manage just fine.”

CCIC on his resume

The baccalaureate engineering program Phelps enrolled in requires students to have internships or co-ops and attend evening classes. Phelps said he had nearly 20 internship interviews and that every interviewer asked him about the CCIC, which he had listed on his resume. This gave him an opportunity to talk about working on a team, doing 3D modeling, and making presentations in Houston and Washington.

In the fall, Phelps was selected for an S-STEM scholarship that the university awards with funding from NSF. As a student at HCC, Phelps also participated in the NSF’s Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation (LSAMP) program.

The moment Phelps, Lovick and Asch learned their team had won top honors at 2023 CCIC.

About the Author

Madeline Patton
Madeline Patton is an education writer based in Ohio.