It was “Shark Tank” without the bite. These are high school students.
On Saturday, they pitched products they’ve been working on all school year to a panel of four judges who were more interested in nurturing the ideas than knocking them down.
One innovation is a small solar-powered fire sensor that is attached to trees in the back country, alerting emergency crews when a blaze breaks out. Another is a trash can for parks that empties itself, eliminating overflow litter. A third, for the hearing-impaired, converts speech to text in real time.
All shared a common goal: “impactful change.”
Known as Demo Day, the event was held at e3 Civic High School in downtown San Diego and drew about 50 people. Six teams competed Saturday, vying for $500 grants to further develop their projects. (The three mentioned above won.) Another six teams are scheduled to make pitches Sunday.
The program was organized by Project Invent, a Palo Alto nonprofit started in 2018 that trains educators and provides curriculum to guide students through the invention process. They spend months researching and refining ideas, designing prototypes and developing financial plans.
For James Pangilinan, a junior at e3 Civic High, it was a chance to combine his interest in computer programming with a lifelong passion for helping others. “Be the hero,” in his words.
His team came up with ControlVerse, an improved controller for people using deep brain stimulation to help manage the tremors and other effects of Parkinson’s. The students were inspired by a mentor at the school who has the disease.
“Controlling Parkinson’s is a problem that not many people have to think about,” the 17-year-old said.
Working on it brought real-world challenges that went beyond what’s usually taught in the classroom, he added. That process — not just learn it, but do it — is playing more of a role in education everywhere.
“A generation of kids has come along and said, ‘I don’t want to be pigeon-holed, and you have to figure out how to introduce me to more things,’ ” said DeAndrei Sanders, a dean at e3 Civic High.
Saturday’s Demo Day demonstrated another trend: more young women are getting interested in coding and engineering. Female presenters outnumbered males. (There were more women judges, too.)
The teams came from e3 Civic High, Marlborough School in Los Angeles and Breakthrough Training Center in Arcadia. They gave five-minute PowerPoint overviews and answered questions from the judges about the origins of their products, the challenges they faced, and the lessons they learned.
The students also heard from Scott Swaaley, who’s been down the path these budding inventors are now exploring. He’s the founder and CEO of MAKESafe Tools, a San Diego company started in 2016 to solve a particular problem: accidents involving industrial machinery.