Midland High students develop VR prototype for Parkinson’s patients

On Saturday, April 23, a team of Midland High students won $35,000.

Team Rennason, comprised of Lauren McGuirk, Allison Scheffer, and Elliana Rinn, won first place at the Nickless Innovation Award competition for their project. Rennason developed a virtual reality program called Virtual Motion Therapy (VMT) — physical therapy intended to address obstacles Parkinson’s Disease patients face when seeking treatment.
Team Rennason won the Nickless Innovation Award.
“Parkinson’s Disease is incurable, but the quality and length of life can be improved greatly with treatment,” the team members wrote in their final project report. “Interventions that can improve motivation, increase accessibility and reduce cost are necessary.”

Robert Fox, Team Rennason’s coach and computer science teacher at Midland High, has been coaching teams in the award competition for seven years.

“I've been teaching 18 years now. I've never seen anything in my experience as a teacher that grows students so rapidly right before your eyes,” says Fox. “... I think it's especially cool getting to coach a team of women in this because they're underrepresented in the field, and they have a lot to offer, clearly.”

They’ve been working on this project since September of last year. For Phase One of the competition, each team was required to identify a problem and submit a two-page description of its proposed project. 

“Mr. Fox kept on telling us to think of ideas that made us mad or that we were passionate about so we could write a 20-page paper on it,” says Allison Scheffer, team member.

Rennason's Elliana Renn talks to a member of the public about their virtual motion therapy.
“Eventually, I think I came up with Parkinson's Disease makes me mad, because my grandfather passed away from that,” says Lauren McGuirk, team leader. Once the team hashed out the idea, they had to implement it. Teams advancing to Phase Two received a $1,000 grant to conduct their research, buy materials, and develop a viable working model over the next few months. 

For some schools, the Nickless Innovation Award competition is part of the curriculum. At Midland High though, that wasn’t the case. Team Rennason worked on their project during an independent study hour.

“I do think that one of the coolest things about this project was that it wasn’t a school curriculum,” says Scheffer. “We were able to make our own timeline and our own schedule, which is a really important skill in any kind of job you’re going to have. … Mr. Fox was always there to get us back up if we were stumbling anywhere, but he wasn’t giving us step-by-step instructions. He wasn’t in complete control; we were able to have our own freedom.”

Then, on competition day, teams presented their project to a panel of judges and a public audience in Alan W. Ott Auditorium at Saginaw Valley State University.
Saginaw Valley State University hosted the NIckless Innovation Award.
“I never would’ve thought I’d be able to go up in front of like a crowd of people with judges in front of me and actually make a big presentation about something that would be so important,” says Elliana Rinn, team member, “But Mr. Fox always has guided me through that.”

“We felt confident replying to their questions because we knew the answers,” says McGuirk. “I think that just really left us happy afterward.

Their hard work paid off. Each team member won a $5,000 scholarship, and Midland High was awarded a $20,000 STEM grant. No decision has been made on how to use the money yet, but past winnings have gone toward chemistry equipment, software subscriptions, classroom sets of graphing calculators, and supporting extracurricular STEM activities such as their American Computer Science League team. Team Rennason’s names will also be engraved onto the trophy, which will be displayed at Midland High until the next competition. 

Among their competitors were students from Bay, Saginaw, Tuscola, and Midland counties. Other schools represented in the top 11 teams included Bullock Creek High School, Herbert Henry Dow High School, and Reese High School.

A.H. Nickless Innovation Award goes beyond a science competition

Teams are judged not only on the science and technical aspect of their projects but also on how viable it is from a business standpoint. As such, the panel of judges brings a variety of expertise: engineering, physics, chemistry, computer science, technology, finance, and entrepreneurship.

Dow High student presentation at Nickless Innovation Award competition.
“It (entrepreneurship) is the unique part of this competition,” says Brandon Toyzan, a judge with the competition since its inception eight years ago. “How would you market this thing? How would you take it to market? Can you get grant money for it? Those types of questions are just really, really unique.”

Everyone involved sees the competition as a valuable asset to the community.

“I would like to hope that by giving scholarship money, some of these students will come back to Bay City (and the region) and hopefully use their education to help the community,” says Jan Royce, one of the Nickless daughters.

Toyzan notes the projects are often representative of what “hot topics” society is facing at the time. He thinks it’s important to see what issues the youth are interested in solving.
Projects are often representative of what “hot topics” society is facing at the time, says judge Toyzan.
“Just getting students to think about the social problems and how STEM/technology really can be used to innovate – that, for me, is number one,” says Toyzan. “Not every single one is going to turn into something viable long term … but the concept at the very least – how do you innovate as a young person and tackle complex problems – that right there is the real driver, even if they just learn that skill.”

“I appreciate that these kids are thinking about really important social issues,” says Tankersley. “I just thought about how much more aware the younger generation is in high school.” Other than learning valuable skills, the Nickless daughters believe the competition builds community connectedness.
The Nickless daughters believe the competition builds community connectedness.
“I was looking around at what I assume are parents and probably teachers as well, and they’re on the edge of their seats.” Judy Graham, another Nickless daughter, adds, “I  think sometimes teachers get a bad rap, and honestly, these are teachers who are giving extra time and showing up on a Saturday. And the parents see that, and I think only good could come of that.”

To learn more about the competition, you can read our past reporting or view the Nickless Innovation Award website.

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Read more articles by Crystal Gwizdala.

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.