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See Inside January 2011

They're Young, and They're Restless: Collegiate Inventors Face Off

While we fret, some college students are busy creating the future



Illustration by Matt Collins

Reading a newspaper, watching CNN or even just looking around can bring on a feeling of impending doom. But in late October I ran into a few individuals who recharged my batteries. Because they do things like figure out better ways to recharge batteries. They were the 10 teams of finalists in the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s 20th Annual Collegiate Inventors Competition in Alexandria, Va.

I first covered the competition, which awards prizes to the best undergraduate and graduate student inventing teams, back in 2004 [see “The New College Try,” February 2005]. The grand prize winner that year was Ozgur Sahin. When he was 11, he built a mechanical adding machine from his Lego set. He won the 2004 competition for his improved atomic force microscope. (My greatest intellectual achievement to date was figuring out how to set the time on a digital answering machine.)

Of the 2010 efforts, the one I wanted to own immediately was an ingenious device invented by Lehigh University undergrads Michael Harm (whose nickname would be “First Do No” if I had anything to say about it), Gregory Capece and Nicholas Rocha. As freshmen, they were told to come up with a kitchen product that would help elderly people to remain in their homes longer.

Let’s think. A refrigerator with a built-in magnification system so elders can more easily see what’s in back? A table with legs of variable length that automatically levels itself on uneven floors, so that diners aren’t reduced to wedging matchbooks under a leg in a vain attempt to stop the wobble? A countertop TV that reduces anxiety by switching to soothing music whenever it detects a politician scaremongering about nonexistent death panels?

One of the intrepid undergrads, Rocha, instead did a truly novel piece of research to put his team on the right track: he spoke to senior citizens. “I’m from Vero Beach, Florida,” he told the audience at the awards dinner. “Quite a few retirees. I talked to my grandparents and their friends to find out what they had troubles with in the kitchen. And they said, ‘I like to use my blender, my toaster oven, my electric can opener, all sorts of things, and it clutters the counter space to have all that up there at once.’ So they’re constantly plugging and unplugging, which is a pretty big chore for them.” I’m still a far piece from Social Security, but even I sometimes think that ripping three-pronged plugs out of the wall should be an Olympic event.

Guided by the philosophy that a grandmother’s necessity is the mother of invention, the young men came up with a two-part cylinder they call the MPlug. One part plugs into the wall outlet permanently. The other part stays connected to the plug at the end of the cord of the coffeemaker or other appliance. (You’d want a few of this second part of the cylinder, one for each of the other appliances that will be shuttled in and out of the available socket.) Simply bring the two parts close to each other, and, voilà (or a trumpet fanfare if you dislike a word that looks like a string instrument), built-in magnets snap them together. And there’s no preferred orientation, as in a three-prong plug—as long as the two faces are flush, the electronics will complete the circuit.

The kids showed off a prototype, but they say that they need to fine-tune the magnet strength—so that the two parts stay together, but your sainted mum can still easily pry them apart to remove the coffeemaker after breakfast and plug in the blender to start on the postgolf daiquiris.

Other undergrad projects included a surgical sponge that, if accidentally left inside the patient, can harmlessly break down, much as the hopes and dreams of surgeons currently do if their sponge counts come up short. Another was an intelligent drill for teaching novice orthopedic surgeons to zap bone in exactly the right direction. (Present-day practice includes the experienced surgeon touching the far side of the bone and having the newbie aim for that highly trained finger.) The graduate student projects were even more complicated than Sahin’s adding machine. For a complete roundup of the finalists and winners, go to www.invent.org/collegiate. And keep plugging

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