Cold Waters Lead to Hot Futures for High School Inventors: A Conversation with Doug Scott and Katelyn Sweeney
In 2013, the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam at Natick High School near Boston invented a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) capable of conducting search-and-rescue operations in iced-over waters. The vehicle can traverse the surface of the ice in just a few minutes, then lower a submersible into a hole in the ice with a boom and pulley system. The first-of-its-kind submersible takes the place of a human diver, searching for objects or bodies in dangerous waters up to 40-feet deep with temperatures of 33–45°F.
Natick’s InvenTeam has received significant attention for the breakthrough, including an invitation to participate in the 2014 White House Science Fair. The Lemelson Foundation recently caught up with Doug Scott, Natick’s InvenTeam mentor, and Katelyn Sweeney, a former InvenTeam team member who is currently a sophomore at MIT.
THE LEMELSON FOUNDATION: Tell us about the InvenTeam experience. How is it different than other educational experiences from a teacher’s and a student’s perspectives?
DOUG SCOTT: InvenTeams changed two things: The way I teach and the way the students learn. Through my association with the Lemelson-MIT Program, I was able to meet a lot of mentors who helped me reshape what I do in my classroom. I was able to incorporate invention education and totally revamped an advanced robotics class into an advanced inventive robotics class. Learning was no longer about me dictating what students were going to do; it became more about them and their ability to think at a higher level, identify problems, and come up with solutions working as a team.
KATELYN SWEENEY: Working with the InvenTeam was probably the craziest educational experience I had in high school. We spent countless hours a week in the lab. We started with brainstorming and designing different pieces and components that we wanted our machine to have. We’d break off into groups and create ideas to solve a certain problem that we needed to address, then we would present each idea to the larger group, and take the one we thought was best. Occasionally, we’d run with that one and it wouldn’t work, and we would shift to a different idea or go back to the drawing board. That took up the most time in the project.
When we finally landed on what we thought would be our final prototype, we began to build it out. As we built, we encountered new problems we had to solve. In the end we ended up with a working prototype. That was incredible.
SCOTT: I was amazed by the working prototype! When the students decided that this was what they wanted to do, I thought that the problem and solution they chose were too difficult and that the prototype would be extremely challenging to build. So when I saw it work, I was so happy for them because I could see how excited they were. They were celebrating on the ice when it worked. These kids had done something really special.
LEMELSON: Katelyn, how does it feel to see something evolve from a conceptual stage to a prototype? How did it feel to see it deployed for the first time?
SWEENEY: Seeing it move for the first time and actually respond to the controller was unbelievable. We had spent so much time solving problems and it was really frustrating to struggle through all the debugging issues, but seeing it work on the ice that evening really made it worth the effort. It was a truly indescribable experience. I felt so proud of the machine and for the rest the team.
LEMELSON: Beyond this one experience with the prototype, what would you say the students are taking away? Do you think this gave the students a different idea of what an inventor is?
SCOTT: Yes. The students now understand what an inventor is because they went through the whole process, from identifying a problem, to filing for a US utility patent. We were fortunate that the students had enough drive to do all of this. They now have a full understanding of what it takes to invent and they have a whole new respect for all the work. It takes a lot of iterations and failures to come up with an invention that solves real problems.
In addition, it has helped the girls in our school become interested in STEM fields and classes. We went from eight female students across my STEM clubs and class rosters, to forty-one this year. The notoriety that the two girls on this team got from their participation in the InventTeam and their visit to the White House Science Fair attracted a lot of attention from girls at our school who could now say, "Wow, look those girls did something special! They were on the InventTeam and they were able to bring their STEM education to the next level." The two girls we had on the InvenTeam were amazing and did a lot to encourage other girls at the school.
SWEENEY: The InvenTeam had a huge effect on the course of my education. It exposed me to real engineering problems and the design process without excessive hand-holding, but also not in a “fend for yourself” way. It allowed me to create with a team and see my own ideas become reality.
Then there was all the exposure to the engineering world. Last May, when we went to the White House Science Fair and we presented our prototype to President Obama and Bill Nye the Science Guy, we got to see so many really cool scientists and hear about their ideas, and they were interested in hearing about ours. It was the first time anyone had been really interested in something I had done. With the InvenTeam initiative, you're presenting your ideas to the real world and that has real consequences – it’s great.
I’ve learned that this community is one of the most important aspects of engineering. Through my InvenTeam experience, I met a ton of new people with unique perspectives and interpretations of how to solve problems. Every person on the team was critical in creating the final, holistic solution. Especially for young inventors starting out, finding a good community and a support system for ideas is important because so much can go wrong with a project, and being able to have multiple minds on an idea helps to find a good solution. And, of course nothing is free. So building a network that helps young inventors fund ideas through the invention process is necessary.
LEMELSON: What are the students doing now, a year or two down the road? Has this experience benefitted others beside Katelyn?
SCOTT: We had a really diverse group of students with totally different backgrounds. Katelyn was certainly an exceptional student at Natick and was very driven to go to MIT. This project helped to propel her towards that goal. Olivia, another student on the team, hadn’t been involved with a lot of technical classes or technical interests, and this project certainly opened her eyes to those things and now she's going after a mechanical engineering degree.
Ford was another young person on the team. He was not a fantastic student in high school but joined our project and ended up in the Air Force. Through his placement exams, the Air Force noticed that he had participated in a Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam, and as a result, he was placed in the space program. He's now managing satellites and told me that his work on the InventTeam was not only a huge benefit to him, but it also caught the eye of the Air Force and help him in placement.
We have other students that really had no direction and they weren't planning on going to college. They chose, after the project, to go on to community college and explore more opportunities. All of these kids came out better because of the InvenTeam experience.