STEM at SI: SI's project invent team

January 29, 2021. By Keira Tam '22

Project Invent is a nationwide engineering and design competition that empowers innovative high school students to invent technologies that solve real-world problems. Mr. Patterson, one of the moderators of SI’s Project Invent team, dives deep into what the team does, their process of choosing an invention to work on, and what he hopes students will learn from their experiences.

For those who are unfamiliar with Project Invent, what is it and what do you do?

Mr. Patterson: Project Invent is a nationwide high school engineering/design competition that is meant to teach students about engineering and design thinking by having students design to meet the needs of an underserved community. It is a learning on a 'need-to-know' basis in order to reach the team goal of building a working prototype to meet the real needs of a community partner. Some school teams design for a blind community partner, some for people whose hands are no longer functioning. Our team at SI, moderated by Dr. Cody and myself, have partnered with a parishioner from a local parish who became paralyzed three years ago and we have been working with him to come up with a functioning design that might help improve the quality of his life.

How long has SI’s Project Invent team been around? Are there any prerequisites to join?

Mr. Patterson: This is the launch year of SI's Project Invent team. We started the first week of school with 7 freshmen. All 7 have stuck with it and they have become a really cohesive group. We meet a few times a week and they also complete additional work outside of our meeting times. The SI team is incredible! They have completely taken responsibility for their design. The ideas are theirs, the decisions are theirs, and the plan is theirs. They have their own little engineering company and are making progress on their first design which is due in the beginning May. The prerequisites for the SI PI team are a willingness among the freshmen to get involved with doing something technical that they have never tried before; to give themselves over to learning and working together; to attend meetings every week and complete on time their own project calendar tasks; to take seriously their abilities to impact the world; to take seriously the needs of a human being with whom they have built trust; and to make a commitment to working on a technical solution to improve the condition the community partner's life based on what they as a group have decided they can accomplish for him. We attended, by Zoom, a design review in December where students presented their design proposals to engineers and other schools. We were the only all freshman team, and I say this completely objectively, our SI team was by far the most articulate and the most impressive of the teams from northern California whose presentations we heard.

What invention/inventions have students been working on?

Mr. Patterson: Our team met the most gracious, grateful, warm and receptive dad from a local parish who put his own 4 children through Catholic elementary and high school here in San Francisco. He was a salesman who had a business which required him to travel to the retail shops of his customers. He was successful and made a great living. Then on a summer's evening in 2018, while attending a convention, he had a spontaneous medical incident that caused him to become paralyzed. He had to retire from his business, start using a wheelchair, and learn to live with his paralysis. A stronger, more gracious and self-accepting person you could not imagine. Our students started interviewing him about the challenges he experiences in his wheelchair. The more they talked with him, the more they realized how grateful he is for the life he has, for the help he has received, and for all that he was able to earn before his paralysis, and for all that he can do today. After going through a long design process the students presented him with over 15 ideas they had to technically enhance his life given his paralysis. Most of the team's ideas were impressive to him. Finally the group decided from among their top ideas one thing to focus on which they felt capable of developing given their novice engineering skills. They seized on what they thought would be a doable challenge for them, involving a technical enhancement to his wheelchair. It is an enhancement that the group feels strongly will be of help to other paraplegics and our partner was really excited by the concept himself. I am leaving their plan vague, because we are still in the development phase and who knows how far the team will take their idea--will they keep working on it for years to come after completing the competition?

During the pandemic, how have you all been working together virtually?

Mr. Patterson: We have been working together on Zoom until school opened for on campus work in mid November. At that time, most of the group registered for Cohort B and has been coming to campus during those weeks. Our progress was good during the fall as we brainstormed together on Mural, a design platform that is also used by other classes here on campus.

As a mentor, what do you hope students will get out of this experience?

Mr. Patterson: First and foremost the students learn to be part of a team and that involves taking all sorts of responsibility for the collective success and integrity of the team. Then there are the aspirational aspects of setting out to improve the world and working with fellow students to accomplish that. The serious purpose of working with a community partner to help improve some aspect of his life is immediate and obvious. That is nothing that has to be taught. You are speaking with a person about the most intimate challenges he faces and doing your best to think of what you might do to make his life better. The requirements to be sensitive, serious, understanding and empathetic are self-evident, especially to anybody who attends SI--it is the very reason we are all here. But because students design for a real person with whom they have developed a relationship, the challenge of improving his life brings with it the challenge for each student to realize their own empowerment and agency. That I can find within my life and my capacity to learn, a way to work with teammates to impact this world for the good and positively influence the life of someone who has entrusted our team with his story, has to be the most immediate expression of what education is: intellectual development which summons forth the best in my character. Reflecting on my own education and my long career as an educator, I wish I had at the age of 14 a real experience that made tangible the connection between my commitment to my education and my desires to do my part to improve the world. As with anything that happens in school, most of the time we are together we are trying to learn: to analyze and break apart the problem, to better understand, to phrase and rephrase what the problem is, to learn to code and calculate and draw, to hit deadlines and fulfill expectations. The reality of designing for a particular person who has shared his challenges with us makes the learning a byproduct of our deeper desires to improve someone else's circumstances and that is an appropriate introduction to STEM education at SI. A positive experience of rationality as a means to improve the world for others.