Two dozen students from throughout the country have spent the past week working with NASA technology to develop marketable products, and on Friday the group presented their ideas.
The Shark Tank-like experience concluded the Summer Startup Camp, an entrepreneurship session run through the Youth Adventure Program, which is part of the Texas A&M department of educational psychology.
Divided into six groups of four, some of the teams were still developing their ideas Thursday before having to make the pitch Friday morning to the five NASA representatives from Johnson Space Center’s Technology Transfer Program.
“They definitely used that creativity to come up with novel ways of implementing it in different industries than what we had developed the technology for,” said Executive Vice Chairman of NASA’s Cross Industry Innovation Summit Michael Interbartolo.
After the judges’ heard each group, they chose the team that invented an automated produce picker known as a Tract-O — “the Roomba of agriculture” — as the winner Friday afternoon. Each member received a Roku device.
“It felt great to win after all that work,” said Tyler Wright, who will be a freshman at Bryan Collegiate High School in the fall.
To generate their ideas, each team started the week by selecting at least one patent — shuttle or other space-type technology — to create a consumer product or something that could be put into the market.
“What that does is it allows them to touch real-world space technology, so it makes the program very real for them,” Walter Ugalde, industry outreach executive and licensing manager with NASA and 1990 Texas A&M graduate, said. “Then, it shows them how they can leverage those things for the market.”
Beyond just creating the idea, the students had to create a prototype using materials they found at AggieSurplus, which is excess equipment, furniture and supplies from Texas A&M departments.
It teaches them to repurpose, use their hands and think differently and forces them to share and gets their ideas going, Camp Director Shelly Brenckman said.
“It teaches creativity, and I really like the solution of going to Surplus, because that’s kind of fun trying to use your imagination,” she said, noting some students could not find any wheels for their prototype, so they used CDs as a representative stand-in.
To increase the challenge, the organizers made sure none of the students in each group knew each other before the camp.
The camp created an atmosphere where the students had to force fit, or put things together that do not naturally connect — not only their project, but also the group itself.
“They really had to find commonalities in what their strengths were as individuals, how they can work best as a team, who’s best at speaking and pitching, who knows the technology, who’s got the background in those type things,” Youth Adventure Program Director Jay Woodward said. “You’ve got to force fit a group together.”
The process was frustrating at times when having to develop new ideas from scratch, but it was very rewarding once they completed their pitch, Clear Lake High School freshman Bella Ugalde, CEO of the Ludome group and Walter Ugalde’s daughter, said.
In the end, though, communication was the most important aspect to the team’s success, she said. Ludome, which was designed an air-conditioned inflatable dome, was named an honorable mention in the competition.
“It’s all about motivation, picking each other up and then listening to each other’s feedback and just put yourself out there,” she said.
The team members each come with their own skills and their own backgrounds, which is a perfect example of how NASA works, NASA budget analyst and flight operations manager — and 2017 A&M graduate — Arden Robertson said.
“We represent a variety of backgrounds. Most people don’t think a business-IT person works at NASA like me, and most people don’t think that we do innovation and crowd sourcing,” she said. “I really hope that the students here can see that what you major in and what you go for, do what you’re passionate about. That’s what makes NASA so great is that we have such a diverse set of backgrounds. That’s why we work as such a great team.”
As an example, Robertson said, she studied accounting, while Ugalde studied architecture and Innovation Strategist Allison Wolff studied communications and humanities.
“A lot of times when people think of NASA, they just think a certain type of aerospace engineer or a mechanical engineer,” Robertson said. “We come from so many different backgrounds, and that’s why we’re able to do such incredible stuff when we come together and innovate.”
At its core, the purpose of the camp, Woodward said, is to help students explore potential career options and save both time and money when they enter college.
Even though the ages range from 13 to 17, the camp’s curriculum is not divided by age because the camp, targeted toward gifted and talented students, is created based on the understanding that the students have the ability to operate and think at a high level.
The camp creates a “safe think space,” he said, where students can brainstorm and fail without fear, as long as they learn from those failures.
“Kids are afraid to raise their hands. Kids are afraid to risk take or to try something different,” he said, noting his term “comfortable failure.”