- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 25, 2009

It is not uncommon to hear about American youth placing near-last in international math and science competitions and how the whole country is falling behind in everything from nano to solar technology.

At the 13th annual March Madness for the Mind at the National Museum of American History on Friday, the best and brightest of America’s young engineering minds were out to prove that not everyone is asleep at the switch.

On display - for only a day - were one high-school-based and 14 college-based inventions ranging from an electronic vest for autistic children created by a team from the University of Massachusetts Amherst to easy-to-assemble lanterns for Third World use by a team from the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

“The idea of this project is to help villagers become self-sustained,” says Anurag Panda, a sophomore at Cooper Union and one of the inventors of the one-of-a-kind lanterns, reminiscent of a bird house.

The lantern invention and its goal of serving those less fortunate is typical of the inventions shown at the March Madness of the Mind, sponsored by the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).

“This is the millennium generation. It’s an idealistic generation,” says Phil Weilerstein, executive director of the NCIIA, a group sponsored by the Lemelson Foundation and the National Science Foundation. “Making a social impact is what drives them.”

The lanterns are somewhat odd looking because, aside from the solar-powered battery and LED light, they’re made out of scraps - soda cans and strips of plastic bags - found in villages in Ghana, Rwanda and Kenya, where Mr. Panda and his crew already are trying out the invention.

The crew gives the villagers a tool kit to make their own lanterns, which also ensures they’ll know how to fix them when they break.

“Many organization give them lanterns and other items, but when things break, no one knows how to fix them. It’s a big waste,” Mr. Panda says. “But we give them the expertise and tools to fix these lanterns if they break.”

The next step for the inventors is to find local entrepreneurs who can sell the kits - which include switches and circuits and cost about $5 each - and who can rent out tools, including hand drills, when the lanterns break. It can take villagers up to six months to pay for the kits.

The crew supplies each village with a manual, which shows assembly and fixing solutions mostly through pictures. Each village also receives a large battery - which is recharged through a mobile solar strip - from which the individual lantern batteries can be recharged once a week. It’s estimated that a lantern can be on for about 24 hours without losing its charge.

The lantern invention lived up to the three criteria the NCIIA looks at when selecting the 15 teams from hundreds of applicants nationwide: best commercial potential, greatest degree of innovation and greatest progress toward goals.

Another showcased entry was the battery-driven vest for autistic children invented by Brian Mullen and Chris Leidel of the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

“There are a lot of medications out there for autistic children, but a lot of parents want alternatives,” says Mr. Mullen, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering.

A treatment - which needs more research and testing, acknowledges Mr. Mullen - is to provide autistic children with weighted vests, which are currently on the market. The heavy vests provide a snug, hugging fit that is supposed to relieve anxiety and increase focus.

“We believe our vest is a better choice because it weighs less than five pounds and you can use it as needed,” Mr. Mullen says.

The vest is wired and has a hand control that adjusts the snugness of the fit. For example, when the child is feeling extra anxious, the vest can be tightened a bit just by squeezing the hand control.

Mr. Mullen wants to take his invention to the next level and make the vest into commercial product, which he hopes will be covered by insurance, but money is needed for more studies.

Raising money and finding investors are part of the reason for the March Madness of the Mind event, Mr. Weilerstein says.

“We want to help create an economic opportunity,” says Mr. Weilerstein, who helped pick the 15 final teams.

A local team from Catholic University, for example, is working on a real-time, compact 3-D imaging system that has - potentially - many commercial applications, such as quality control of electronics manufacturing.

In the past, some March Madness of the Mind inventions have become commercial products, such as Helix, a type of reinforced concrete. These products are telling examples of how the event can help provide a pathway “beyond the academic study of a subject,” Mr. Weilerstein says.

Mr. Panda echoes the sentiment, adding: “It’s very gratifying to work on something that is making a tangible difference right away.”

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