‘They can do big things’

Virginia Western Community College students practice their pitch for last year’s Community College Innovation Challenge when they were introduced to a group of state officials that was touring the campus and stopped in the engineering lab. (Photo: VWCC)

Last winter, the Appalachian Engineers Club at Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) was brainstorming ideas for a tool to sort metal pull tabs for the Ronald McDonald House’s recycling fundraiser when an administrator suggested entering the Community College Innovation Challenge.

“I didn’t know it was a thing. And I looked at the dates and we had like a couple of months – maybe eight weeks – to prepare. I said, ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot,’ and that team of regulars they were on board,” said Richard W. Henegar, Jr. The team members were the four most active members of the club, which Henegar had formed to give students community service goals for the gadgets they were building in the college’s maker space.

Henegar’s official title is engineering lab manager. “But I like to call it facilitator of creativity,” he said during an interview.

Henegar returned to his “dream job” at VWCC, where he earned an associate of applied science degree in mechatronics, after graduating summa cum laude in 2022 from Old Dominion University (Virginia) with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering technology.

Info webinar this week

Community college staff members as well as faculty in all disciplines and administrators are eligible to mentor student teams for the national competition that the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) offers in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF).

To learn more about mentoring student teams to use science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to develop innovative solutions to real-world problems attend a free webinar – “The Community College Innovation Challenge – Why Your Students Should Apply?” – on February 8. Register today.

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

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 NSF and AACC representatives.

Up to 12 teams will be selected for the 2024 Innovation Boot Camp from 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.

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.

Getting ready for CCIC 2024

“It was an awesome experience for all parties involved,” Henegar said of the WVCC team’s experience as one of 12 finalists selected to attend the 2023 Innovation Boot Camp. The now 16-member Appalachian Engineers Club is working on multiple philanthropic projects, and three teams are preparing submissions for this year’s CCIC.

Henegar said he uses the competition as a “stepping stone” to show students that they can make a difference.

“They can do big things,” Henegar said of community colleges students. The opportunity to network with other innovators at the Innovation Boot Camp is another reason he’s encouraging VWCC students to enter this year’s CCIC.

Of the boot camp, he said, “It was amazing just seeing all the other students that were there for the same purpose and seeing some of the ideas that they’re coming up with. It kind of gave me hope for the future – that there are young bright minds out there that are chasing, you know, making a difference and not a paycheck. That was big for me, and letting my students see that and mingle with that.”

Looking back to CCIC 2023: Final pitches and the CCIC winners

About the Author

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