Improving lives through invention

Achieving that Lightbulb Moment

How two high school inventors created a flashlight to help light the way for their community’s first responders

“Solve a problem for the local fire or police department.”

That was the only instruction given for the opening project in Doug Scott’s high school engineering class in Hopkinton, Massachusetts. He uses an invention education approach to teaching STEM, which is rooted in project-based learning and the methods inventors use to identify and solve problems. 

His lessons are student-led, open-ended, and draw from a variety of subjects and disciplines — and just like the invention process, they also involve a lot of trial and error.

Two of his students, Lauren Strechay and Nicolette Buonora, were awarded a patent for their invention first conceived when they were freshmen in Scott’s engineering and robotics class. They participated in his First Responders Project, which Scott developed as a way to connect his students to the broader community to solve local challenges — in this case the fire and police departments. It was an approach he had used at his previous school in Natick, with similarly inspiring results.

Nicolette Buonora (left) and Lauren Strechay (right) display their invention.

After interviewing police officers about some of the equipment challenges they faced, Lauren and Nicolette hit on one they thought they could tackle in the few weeks allotted to the project: how to keep officers’ flashlights from going out suddenly when their batteries died.

Earlier versions of flashlights with incandescent bulbs would begin to flicker as their power source got low, but when they were upgraded with more sustainable LED lights, there was an unintended consequence. They would die without warning, which became a big issue for first responders working at night.

 “We try to control the light in our environment as we work on a scene, so our flashlights are important tools,” said Hopkinton’s Police Chief Joseph Bennett.

Lauren and Nicolette devised a solution they called “Battery Swap” — a flashlight with two sets of internal batteries, allowing users to swap between power sources with the flip of an external switch.

Before they could create their prototype, they first had to learn how a flashlight actually works, as well as all of the skills that go into building one. And then another real-world challenge presented itself: COVID-19.

During the early days of the pandemic, their class was on a hybrid schedule with students working from home fifty percent of the time — and so both students and their teacher had to get creative to make the project work. Students would record questions on their phones to send to police officers, and then the officers would record responses to send back.

Scott developed an elaborate system for his students to get access to materials and tools to make their prototypes — starting with the students using paper, tape, and cardboard for rapid prototyping, and then sending CAD (computer-aided design) files to Scott to create the real parts they needed on a 3D printer. Scott would then stash those in a lockbox behind the school’s shop for students to pick them up, including “inventors kits” with an assortment of small hand tools and safety glasses so they could build their prototypes at home.

Over the course of the project, the students were connected with several police officers, including their own school resource officer, to ensure they were developing inventions that would meet their clients’ needs, as well as an engineering mentor who helped evaluate and provide feedback on their designs.

The Battery Swap flashlight prototype.

“What really stood out to me was the perseverance of the young inventors, mentors, everyone involved,” said Scott. “The kids bought in and stuck with it.”

That perseverance paid off. Lauren and Nicolette’s prototype was chosen as the class’s winning design. They went on to win the Massachusetts Invention Convention competition for high school inventors sponsored by Lemelson-MIT, and then one of the top prizes at the U.S. National Invention Convention sponsored by The Henry Ford, and finally recognition at the Global Invention Convention. Part of their awards included pro bono support to file a patent application for their invention.

On February 6, 2024, about three years after their first class, they learned they had been awarded U.S. Patent 11,892,131 for their Battery Swap flashlight.

Illustrations of the Battery Swap flashlight design from U.S. Patent 11,892,131.

So could we one day see their flashlight design become a standard issue piece of equipment for first responders?

“I was very impressed with the concept of the students’ invention and I really do see this becoming mainstream,” said Police Chief Bennett. “[It] allows us to have that reserve power to use when we need it to finish our work and get out safely.”

Their achievements had a ripple effect, getting more recognition in the community for the school’s invention education approach, and generating more interest in STEM among the students themselves, especially young women.

“We’ve seen our female enrollment in the programs skyrocket recently,” said Hopkinton High School Principal Evan Bishop. “And I think it works for a lot of kids, especially the kids who struggle to sit and stay focused for long periods of time. Here you’re moving, using your hands, using your brain, collaborating — it’s a very different approach than you would normally see in a traditional classroom.”

The class has also had a long-term effect on Lauren and Nicolette. They’re now seniors and deciding on their college plans, which includes pursuing careers in the STEM field. 

We recently spoke with them to hear about their invention journey and what’s next. You can read our conversation below, and watch a video about the project here.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

How was Mr. Scott’s engineering class different from other classes?

Nicolette: Mr. Scott doesn’t have us do crazy homework assignments just for busy work. We hit the ground running with solving real problems. He gives us all the resources we need in those specific areas, and he lets us do it ourselves. It was nice to be able to have the responsibility of really learning about it and really making sure we know what we’re doing.

Lauren: I remember having to apply some of my math knowledge and relating it to my physics class, which is pretty neat seeing them connect across subjects. Mr. Scott gives you a goal and something general to figure out, and then he lets you go off on your own. It’s definitely a project-based class. There are no lectures at all, it’s all application work.

What was the goal for this particular project? 

Nicolette: Mr. Scott wanted us to solve a problem the police department had. That was all we were given, but we were told to interview police officers and write down specific problems they brought up. We really wanted to create something that was impactful and would actually be useful to them.

Lauren: It was interesting because it meant we got to interact with people outside school, and it just felt more connected since it was our community. I never had a project quite like this where we were speaking directly to them.

What kinds of things did you need to learn to complete your prototype?

Lauren: The first thing we did was research if there were any specific measurements of a flashlight for the police officers to fit with their gear. And then we had to figure out how to actually make a working flashlight. I think we didn’t really think that one far enough through. We were like, how hard can it be? We had to learn how to make the front end of the flashlight where the light is, a reflective panel so the light will shine. We had to learn wiring and soldering, which is something I had never done before. And then we had to learn about circuits, how they work in general and different types of switches that we could use. 

How did you feel when your invention actually worked?

Lauren: I think it was definitely a big sigh of relief. That was our first, big challenge — it actually had to turn on. But once it did, it really started to get going.

And how did you feel when you were awarded a patent?

Lauren: It was shocking! It was absolutely incredible. I think if you had asked me in freshman year what kind of achievements I would have by the end of high school, a patent would not even remotely be on the list. The process of going through and filing the patent, and the waiting, knowing it had to get approved by the USPTO, and then it finally getting approved — that’s when it really sunk in how big of a deal this was.

How did your concept of inventors and invention change throughout this experience?

Nicolette: I didn’t even know what a patent was. When I thought inventor, I thought Albert Einstein or Edison. I just kind of thought of the people who invented all these world-changing things. I didn’t really realize I could invent and I could create things that help people until I started doing it. And then I was like, “Oh, wait! This can be me. I can be all of those things, too.” 

Who was your mentor during this process?

Nicolette: I think Mr. Scott has really been the biggest mentor in just showing us we can invent. It’s important for us to see that we’re capable of doing these things. He’s been there through all of my crazy engineering ideas, and he’s definitely been a force for helping me to see what is possible. Anything is doable. But there are better ways to do things, and he’s definitely helped me see that the easiest way is not always what’s best.

What are your thoughts on the representation of women in STEM fields?

Lauren: We’re still way underrepresented in STEM classes, specifically engineering. But I do believe it’s changing. I feel like I’m hearing a lot more big names of women in STEM. It’s really cool to know women are starting to level out the playing fields, and that maybe one day, I could be up there with those names as well, making just as big of an impact.

Nicolette: As far as not seeing a lot of representation, I think that just made us want to do it more. It just gives us the opportunity to be who people look to for an example, which is really inspiring for us. I had this one girl who was a freshman who came up to me when I was a junior and said, “I saw your project in Mr. Scott’s class. Now I hope I can do something like that.” And that was just really special for me, because I got to see that what I was doing was making an impact — even if it was just on the people in my school.

How has this experience changed your education and career trajectory?

Nicolette: I wound up in that class by accident. I have ADHD and dyslexia, so I was tested to see what my strengths and weaknesses were. Engineering always tested really, really high. My mom saw that in my tests, and said you should try it out, and if you hate it, fine, you can drop the class within the first week. But after the first week, I knew I wanted to stay there. From there I joined the robotics team and have been doing it ever since. 

Lauren: I was really into Star Wars and space as a kid growing up, and I had a dream of becoming an astronaut. After taking that class, I decided I liked engineering. I found out about aeronautical engineering, and I also took an aeronautical class with Mr. Scott, and that really solidified that it was the specific type of engineering that I really liked.

Are there any other inventions you’re working on?

Nicolette: I’m doing an engineering capstone project about helping people who are driving at night. When people are behind your car with their high beams on, it’s really annoying. I’m a newer driver, and I’ve experienced that a lot. There’s no way to really signal to them that their high beams are on other than flashing your lights, which doesn’t really do anything. So my invention notifies the people with their high beams on.

What is your advice to other prospective student inventors?

Lauren: Even if you are doubtful of what you think you’d be able to do, you should definitely go for it anyways. That’s how I ended up where I am. I didn’t think I’d really like an engineering class, and then I ended up loving it. I didn’t think that our flashlight was actually going to get so much recognition, and then it ended up getting a patent. Just take every chance you can get if you have the opportunity.

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