Harrison Coulter, a former left guard for the Central High School football team in St. Joseph, geared up with helmet and shoulder pads, crouched into a three-point stance and ran full throttle into a dummy.
He was testing the prototype of a safety device for football players, designed and built by two classmates to guard against concussion and head trauma.
They call it the Brain STEM Shock Absorber, a padded neck guard that rests on the player’s shoulders and raises at the point of impact to protect the neck and keep the head from snapping back and forth. After the hit, the absorber returns to its original shoulder position.
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“It’s a simple design, but it is really affective,” Coulter said.
Zachary Fannon and his design partner Cole Baines from Central built the shock absorber and Tuesday, with Coulter’s help, demonstrated it at this year’s Project Lead the Way’s senior showcase, sponsored by the KC STEM Alliance and held at Union Station.
Project Lead the Way is an in-school curriculum in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math that uses real world problem-solving.
The event, believed to be the largest of its kind in the nation, drew more than 300 student projects from 30 schools in the Kansas City area.
It’s designed to give high school seniors, who for two or three years have studied engineering and design or biomedical science, a chance to exhibit work and in some cases earn a scholarship or chance to develop their product for the marketplace.
The STEM Alliance sponsors the event with a host of community partners, including businesses that lend experts in the math and science fields to help judge the projects. Students could compete in an online competition and in the Union Station exhibition arena. Scholarships were awarded in biomedical innovation and engineering and development, worth as much as $2,500.
Among the hundreds who showed up to view the concepts that students had come up with were area entrepreneurs tapped by KC SourceLink and the Center for Entrepreneurial Ecosystem Development. They strolled the floor, making mock investments in products they thought worthy.
Students whose projects caught an investor’s eye will be invited to attend the Make it Real Workshop with mentors to help push their innovation.
“The important thing is to continue to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering and math careers and engage students in a robust curriculum,” said Martha McCabe, executive director of the STEM Alliance.
Rows of projects filled the Sprint Festival Plaza at Union Station and students were showing off everything from solutions for stress to an app that muffles audio and phone noises when it detects certain frequencies, such as that of an emergency siren.
A Fort Osage High School team from Independence sought to solve the problem of screws slipping when a worker is using an electric screwdriver — the Screw Bit Driver Extension, they called it.
A student from Lee’s Summit was in the midst of researching along with a University of Missouri-Kansas City professor how gender and age affect bone density and risk of fracture.
Terry Mitchem and Victor James of Grandview High School devised a way for students to walk hands-free across campus in the rain and remain dry. They designed and built a backpack with a push-button umbrella attached.
Most of the students had been working on their concept, design, and construction since August. The umbrella pack, which was Mitchem and James’ second innovation this year, took two months from start to finish.
Classmates Quamaine Yarbough and Reginald Collier built a miniature dishwasher programmed to pull water from a source, dispense soap, wash the dishes, pump out dirty water and rinse. The gadget, a little larger than a shoebox, isn’t perfect yet, Collier said. The team is working on a heating element to dry the dishes.
“Kids in college don’t have dishwashers in their rooms,” Collier said. “We did the research. They end up washing dishes in the bathroom sink and leaving food there. This could change that.”
Students said they learned a lot about teamwork and trial and error while designing and building projects. They also learned about communicating with one another, and on Tuesday they learned how to explain to passers-by what their project was all about and why they had chosen it.
Collier said most of the projects he saw during the day were derived by students from problems they encountered in their everyday life.
Nichole Clark and Katherine Carney, two musicians at North Kansas City High School, designed a pedal attached to a music stand that when pushed activates a mechanism that flips the music page.
And three seniors at Staley High School in North Kansas City designed a pillow with a puck-size hole in the middle that allows a person to fall asleep comfortably while wearing a pair of headphones and listening to their favorite tunes.
“I was laying in bed with my headphones on one night listening to my music and it was very uncomfortable,” said Ryan Davidson, who designed the pillow with Connor Graham and Colby Mock.
“I sent a text to these guys that said this is a problem that needs fixing.”
All of them have used the pillow and even shared it with friends, Graham said.
But it was the absorber with its big banner displaying actor Will Smith’s face from his movie “Concussion” that attracted a crowd of onlookers, impressed by Coulter, Fannon and Baine’s smash dummy display.
Their engineering teacher, Mark Juhl, hooked Coulter up to an accelerometer strapped to the player’s helmet to measure the g-force when he slammed into the dummy. Without the absorber, 334. Wearing the absorber, 120.
“It works,” Juhl said.
But that doesn’t mean the designers get an automatic A in the engineering and design class.
“This isn’t really about the project itself,” Fannon said. “It’s the process. And that part was fun.”