Uni High team earns grant funding to invent aerial search-and-rescue system


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A team of University High students has been awarded $9,680 in grant funding to develop an aerial search-and-rescue prototype capable of locating lost hikers. Seriously. It’s all part of a unique program that encourages high schoolers to solve real-world problems with technological solutions. 

Uni is one of just 15 high schools nationwide to secure funding for its Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam this year. Founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1994, the Lemelson-MIT program aims to inspire the next generation of inventors and promote economic growth.

Uni High science teacher and STEM coach Tinh Tran describes the program as “the ultimate in STEM project-based learning instruction.”

“There are no predetermined answers,” Tran said. “Where the project goes depends on hard work, skill, smarts and a bit of luck.”

“The team will likely experience many failures along the way and students will learn that it’s okay to fail – failure is an integral part of innovation,” he said. “By working in this type of learning environment, the students develop and practice 21st Century skills needed in a world that values collaboration, initiative, perseverance, flexibility, empathy, curiosity and creativity.

Tran began the InvenTeam application process last spring and even attended a training at MIT in June to refine his school’s entry. Months later, a panel that included educators, researchers, MIT alumni and former Lemelson-MIT award winners judged the proposals and named Uni among this year’s grantees. 

With almost $10,000 in funding, Tran will lead of group of 15 students in developing a high-tech system for locating lost hikers and others who go missing in wilderness areas. According to the proposal, the Uni invention will create an autonomous fixed-wing aircraft, a mobile data-receiving base station and a distress-signal-emitting radio wristband, and all of those components will be able to talk to one another.

“The InvenTeams program represents the future,” said Leigh Estabrooks, Lemelson-MIT’s invention education officer.  “We place an emphasis on STEM-focused projects to develop interest in these fields among youth. With InvenTeams, our primary goal is to foster high school students’ passion for invention, in turn inspiring them to consider careers in science, technology, engineering or math.”

Along with other local companies and organizations, Uni’s InvenTeam — or UNInvenTeam, as they’re calling themselves — is partnering with OC Makerspace, a company that offers community members a creative space to work on projects and connect with professionals.

The Uni students will develop their Aerial Wilderness Distress Monitor and Search System over the next nine months, and in June they plan to showcase a prototype of their invention at EurekaFest, a multi-day event held at MIT with activities designed to inspire youth and encourage creativity and problem-solving.

“The student inventors and I are absolutely thrilled and feel incredibly honored to have received an InvenTeam grant,” Tran told the NewsFlash. “The work we put in over the summer to research, brainstorm ideas, gather feedback from intended beneficiaries and prepare the final application really paid off. Now we get to have fun, because inventing is just plain fun.”