By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON HARBOR — Nearly 100 Lakeshore High School students gathered at Whirlpool Corp.’s Riverview Campus on Friday to celebrate and reap the benefits of four months of work.
Students from ninth to 12th grade were asked to take part in the 2016 Innovation Challenge. Through weekly sessions in Lakeshore’s Math and Science Center, groups of students were tasked with creating a product that would alleviate the amount of food waste in common households, while pitching it to various Whirlpool executives.
Ellen Dutton, product marketing manager at Whirlpool, coordinated this year’s Innovation Challenge. She said each year participating students are given a problem they must solve with a product that can benefit the home consumer.
The home appliance maker chose Lakeshore because the school had accessible time during the school day to work on the projects, Dutton said.
“This is the first time we’ve done this locally,” Dutton said. “On the third day of school in September, we introduced them to the challenge. We know consumers waste a lot of food because they go out to restaurants and never eat them when taking it home. This was a real problem they were facing.”
Food getting spoiled was also a parameter students were asked to look at.
But participating students weren’t left alone. Whirlpool provided mentors for all 20 teams of students – 10 of which made the final cut in mid-November to present to the four judges on Friday.
Those 10 teams visited Notre Dame’s Innovation Center in South Bend for feedback from entrepreneurs before presenting their final plans to Whirlpool executives in December.
Students were given weekly access to mentors where they were given real data from surveyed consumers because of their link to Whirlpool mentors. During the first four weeks, students did nothing but consumer research to learn more about the problem they faced.
Lakeshore junior Natalie Stampfly said her team’s research ranged from surveys to thumbing through books.
Stampfly’s team ended up winning the grand prize among the upperclass teams. Their pitch was for a product called ZAPPET, a UV light that could help slow down food’s decomposition.
Like other groups, they sent out multiple surveys and talked to as many people as they could. She said the most surprising aspect of their experience was learning how well UV light kills bacteria.
“We started off with making it a pre-installed thing, but discovered people wanted it to be able to install it themselves,” Stampfly said. “After that, everything sort of fell into place.”
The group came up with something similar to a puck light. ZAPPET would be battery powered and could be installed in the fridge. Three inches in diameter and thin, the UV light puck wouldn’t fill too much grocery space.
With the grand prize in hand, Stampfly said the hardest part through the whole process was agreeing on something because there were four people with different ideas.
Bringing it to Lakeshore
Whirlpool has done the Innovation Challenge with Penn High School in Indiana for five years before the Mishawaka school added it to the curriculum permanently this year. This allowed Whirlpool to bring the challenge to an area school with the capacity to do so.
“It’s so real, because they’ll do stuff like this in college,” Dutton said. “I love Whirlpool, but for me it’s mentoring the kids. Sometimes in smaller towns you don’t have the same opportunities like that in Chicago. I want them to learn all these business processes and how to work on major projects.”
Friday’s event included an 8-minute presentation for all 10 teams, which were divided into two types of groups – lower and upperclassmen.
Group members that won first place, second place and crowd favorite were given VISA gift cards, which were paid for through the Whirlpool Women’s Network.
After each presentation, students were sent out into the adjoining atrium for the idea fair. During that portion of the event, the 10 teams would make a 2- to 3-minute pitch to passing Whirlpool employees. During the idea fair, Stampfly’s group displayed a small model with a UV light shining directly into a compartment meant to represent the average refrigerator drawer.
Lynda Smith teaches biology at Lakeshore and has been heavily involved with the students throughout their involvement with the Innovation Challenge.
She said the challenge was a nice fit at Lakeshore because a lot of the students are already interested in engineering. Smith was among the few from Lakeshore who attended last year’s challenge with Penn High School to get a better idea of how everything would work.
“This allows our kids to look at a problem’s solution from beginning to end,” Smith said. “These are amazing kids. They care about their education and are really curious. That curiosity really shows through.”
The other students eliminated from the challenge in November were still present Friday. Dutton said they were brought in to learn how to become better for next year’s challenge.
Also in attendance were St. Joseph school representatives. Dutton said five area schools were invited, but only St. Joseph made it. Dutton’s hopes are to include more schools in the near future to go head-to-head, rather than just against the same classmates.
“The only rule we gave them is it has to be something for the home consumer,” Dutton said. “It can’t be for a commercial restaurant or grocery store.”
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on Dec. 17, 2016)