By GREGORY ZELLER //
A sensor-filled table to assist the autistic, an innovative method to save subway stations from storm-surge flooding … no doubt about it, these students were thinking big.
Creative teams from Commack High School’s groundbreaking Science Research Program brought their brains, and their hearts, to this week’s meeting of the Suffolk County Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club. The annual visit gave the young thinkers a chance to showcase their next-level ideas and inventions, with an altruistic twist provided by Frank Krotschinsky, director of Suffolk County’s Office for People With Disabilities.
Krotschinsky dared students in teacher Richard Kurtz’s invention course, which Kurtz created with Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club founder Brian Fried, to design devices, apps and other tools to aid people with physical or developmental challenges.
Students responded with several ideas, many highlighted at Commack High School’s 2016 Science Research Exhibition. Seven finalists from that competition were invited to the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club meeting, where teams eagerly presented their ideas – in various stages of development – to an audience of IP attorneys, seed investors and club members.
“It’s amazing to see the kids’ inspiration and see their products come to life in prototypes,” noted Fried, whose 2008 book, “You and Your Big Ideas,” is incorporated into the Science Research Program curriculum. “And seeing some of them take their ideas to the next level and actually work toward commercializing them … it makes you very proud.”
The Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club appearance has become an annual occurrence for the para-curricular Science Research Program, which students can select in lieu of traditional science classes, and there’s usually that humanitarian bent. In 2015, teams pitched ideas ranging from the Gua Sha Backpack – designed to reduce back and neck strain caused by super-heavy school backpacks – to the Food Friend, a mobile food-allergen detector.
This year, many of the young inventors thought in larger terms. Among the ideas floated: STAAN (for Sensory Table Assisting Autistic Needs); an app to help patients with degenerative memory disorders and other cognitive impairments track their prescription medications; and the Wheelovator, an inexpensive but reliable wheelchair lift.
The makers of the Gua Sha Backpack were back with an updated prototype, joined by a team pitching an ambitious system to keep seaside subway stations and other underground transit hubs from flooding during storm surges.
Also pitched: a line of tools to help people with disabilities remain productive in the workforce and a prosthetic arm that Kurtz called “practical and inexpensive.”
The presenters were “all at different stages,” the instructor noted, referencing presentations that did and didn’t include working prototypes and 3D-printed models, “but they all presented incredibly well.”
Instead of the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club’s regular monthly meeting spot inside Suffolk County’s H. Lee Dennison Building in Hauppauge, the June 21 gathering was held in the Smithtown Library, which not only offers public 3D printing services but houses an official U.S. Patent and Trademark Office-designed Patent and Trademark Resource Center.
The PTRC is a frequent destination for the Science Research Program, which according to Kurtz is trying to encourage its young innovators to look beyond the invention stage.
“One thing I would like to do is to get more entrepreneurial about it,” he told Innovate LI. “A lot of these kids don’t realize that the engineering is only part of the story.
“There are money issues and product-promotion issues, and figuring out what to do in terms of production,” Kurtz added. “It’s a whole other world for them.”
That makes the annual visit to the Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club more than just an enjoyable year-end highlight – it’s a bona fide opportunity for students who are serious about going pro with their ideas.
“There were a lot of professional there who were very encouraging,” Kurtz noted. “There were lawyers there, giving out business cards.”
The teacher said he would reach out to some of his business-development contacts over the summer to gage their interest in some of the Science Research Program’s ideas – but his main focus now is on bolstering the business end of his innovative invention program.
“Like having an IP attorney come into the classroom to discuss provisional patents,” Kurtz said. “Or a marketing expert, or a licensing expert.”
Other than that, the instructor has no plans to change up a curriculum model he designed in tandem with Fried, who was also one of the program’s original mentors.
“We’ll continue with that model, encouraging the kids to do projects based on their interests and experiences,” Kurtz said. “We’ll continue to encourage them to keep their minds open and think out of the box, and not be afraid to take risks.”
There is one change Fried wouldn’t mind seeing, however.
“I would love to see what Commack High School is doing implemented at other schools on Long Island,” the longtime inventor said. “I think this would benefit a lot of other students.”