InvenTeam receives grant for rip-current alert system

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By Eric Walters
Williamston Times staff writer

Team engineer, Jacob Brandon, explains the the system's inner mechanics.

In fall 2011, the Williamston High School InvenTeam was awarded a $10,000 grant by Lemelson-MIT for the rip-current detection system idea it developed. Williamston is the only team from the Midwest to receive a grant.

The InvenTeam program was begun by Lemelson-MIT, with the first grant being awarded in 2002. Teams consist of high school students, teachers and mentors, who work together to create inventions that solve real-world problems. The teams submit ideas for review and a select few are awarded grants to further the idea and actually build the invention.

Dan Schab, a teacher at the WHS Math and Science Academy, is a mentor for the team. He said the Williamston program was started in 2010. That year, the team submitted a proposal for an environmentally friendly window washing system and became a finalist. Williamston did not receive a grant but did receive valuable feedback. In summer 2011, the group began to brainstorm a new idea.

“We were throwing around all sorts of ideas. At one point they (the students) wanted to do a see-through toaster. I got so frustrated, I had to leave. I said ‘here’s my phone number, call me when you have an idea,’” said Schab.

Caroline Rising, an InvenTeam member and WHS junior, said Lemelson-MIT advised the team to incorporate its area into the invention idea. She said the group began to think about the Great Lakes, and the dangers for visitors of the lakes. This led the team to rip currents.

After extensive research, the group developed two designs for what they call the Offshore Rip Current Alert system (O.R.C.A). Team engineer and WHS senior Michael Robinson said it has been difficult to commit to a single design. The leading design is a buoy-like object that will detect rip currents through a propeller in the bottom. When the propeller is spun fast enough it will set off a signal light, and possibly sound an alarm. The goal, said Robinson, is to make a detection system that is extremely reliable, as well as self-maintaining and cost efficient.

Brandon sketches one of the team's two designs.

Nothing like the O.R.C.A system exists today. Rip-current alerts in use now include signs and flags that merely note potential danger. Erin Ruebeck, a team member and WHS junior, said that 40 percent of deaths in the Great Lakes are caused by rip currents. Current alert systems do nothing to lower this percentage. The Williamston invention would save lives by warning beach-goers that an actual rip current is taking place.

Besides construction, the team has two priorities. First is fundraising. The team has several trips planned, including a June trip to Boston for EurekaFest. There, it will present the invention to MIT faculty, the public, press and more. With trip expenses not covered in the grant, the team has had to come up with funds of its own. One fundraiser was held Feb. 12 at Sunnyside Cafe, during which the team raised $766. Other fundraisers are upcoming, with times and places to be determined. The team also submitted an application for a $2,000 grant from the Williamston Schools Foundation. The team’s second priority is preparing for its site visit with Lemelson-MIT on March 27.

Lemelson-MIT will visit to view the team’s progress. An evening reception will also be held. While all InvenTeams have a site visit, a reception is unique. Schab said he’s not sure if Williamston is the only team to have a reception, but he knows it is not standard. He said that Lemelson-MIT told the team that it will be given special attention. Schab believes this is because the team is from a small town, and presenting an invention with life-saving potential.

The team’s public relations division is working on compiling a list of potential guests for the reception, a by-invitation-only event. The list includes Michigan senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, Michigan State University president and professors, and select others. The team even plans to contact President Barack Obama.

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