Eleven Midland County school teams advance in STEM competition

It’s no secret that Midland County focuses on STEM education. That hard work pays off — 11 of the 15 teams advancing in the A.H. Nickless Innovation Award competition are local.

“We wanted to have a catalyst for finding talent, finding the best and brightest students,” says Jack Kidwell, senior vice president at Tri-Star Trust Bank. Since he conceived the idea for the award competition, Kidwell has acted as its local coordinator.

The award is an annual competition for high school students ages 13 to 18 in Bay, Midland, Saginaw and Tuscola counties. It aims to inspire passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects and challenge students to work in teams to think innovatively and develop solutions to problems impacting the world. Topics typically include issues related to alternative energy, healthcare, science, technology or life sciences.

Three winning teams will be awarded a share of $77,500 for scholarships and STEM Education Grants for their respective schools.“We get a wide variety of different projects that the students come forward with,” says Kidwell. “Many of them are designed to combat something that the school, the teacher, or the students have seen as something they want to solve.”

A few examples from previous projects: a bulletproof desk; a cyclist traffic sensor to alert them to nearby traffic with vibration in handlebars; a smart mirror with web application for those with Alzheimer’s or Down’s Syndrome to have reminders of medications or appointments, which could be monitored by a caregiver via phone; an app to report cyberbullying to school officials; a solution to determine nutrient pollution in the Saginaw Bay water system; and a way to control sugar beet odor.

“I’m always amazed each year what the different teams come up with,” says Kidwell. “Many of them are attuned to new things that are happening in the world, and come up with very creative things in order to look at solving issues.”
A vision for this award is to lift up local talent and keep students interested in working locally.The competition – which is presented by the Nickless Family Charitable Foundation – will culminate in a daylong public event on Saturday, April 23, at Saginaw Valley State University, where the teams will present their respective projects. Three winning teams are awarded a share of up to $42,500 in scholarships to students and another $35,000 in STEM education grants to their respective schools each year.

“Some of the [schools]  are using their projects as part of the curriculum, so they add to what’s already being done,” says Kidwell. “... For those that are teaching well, this was a means of trying to help support and encourage those schools to be on the cutting edge and continue to develop their programs to benefit the STEM area in the Great Lakes Bay Region.” 

Previous winning schools have used their grant to buy Geiger counters to study radiation mapping in nuclear chemistry, purchase a 3D printer, and support field trips.

An invitation to participate in the competition was sent to 69 local schools. For Phase One of the competition, each registered team was required to identify a problem and submit a two-page description of its proposed project. Each team now moving on to Phase Two of the competition receives a $1,000 grant to conduct its research, buy materials, and develop a viable working model over the next few months.

Eight teams from Bullock Creek High School will be advancing to Phase Two, two teams from Herbert Henry Dow High School, and one team from Midland High School. Each team consists of 3-5 students and a coach. 

The competition is an opportunity for team's to practice their public speaking skills as they present to a panel of judges.“Part of what we wanted to do was to engage a team of not only those that are the scientists but also those that could market or those that could write, those that could do other things, in order to have a working team,” says Kidwell. “Each person on the team adds to what was being produced as the final product, very similar to what you find in the workforce.”
Kidwell says a vision for this award was to lift up local talent and keep students interested in working locally, bolstering the pipeline of potential workforce to benefit the Great Lakes Bay Region. 
“I think my favorite part is presentation day,” says Kidwell. “You get possibly 100 kids that are coming in order to do something which they haven’t done before.”
The A.H. Nickless Innovation Award was created to honor Arthur H. Nickless’s memory, local innovator and owner of Wolverine Telephone Company. His interest in education, entrepreneurship, and education aligned perfectly with a local STEM award competition.
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Crystal Gwizdala is a freelance writer with a focus on health and science. As a lifelong resident of the Tri-Cities, she loves sharing how our communities are overcoming challenges. Crystal is also a serial hobbyist — her interests range from hiking or drawing to figuring out how to do a handstand. Her work can be seen in Wide Open Eats, The Xylom, Woman & Home, and The Detroit Free Press. To see what Crystal’s up to, you can follow her on Twitter @CrystalGwizdala.