November 2015

  • Rubber Band Boat Challenge

    November 19, 2015
    Posted by Mike
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    This week’s rendition of the Weekly Innovation Challenge was a build project, the engineering majors’ dream, or so you would think. Students were asked to create any type of floating “boat” that could travel, unassisted, the length of rectangular tub filled with water that spanned about three feet long. The boat had to be built only using materials provided by the challenge personnel, which included masking tape in increments of a yard, popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and 6”x6” poster board pieces. This week’s twist was that there was a theoretical cost to all the materials, and the judging criterion was cost effectiveness and design elements. So like the real world, you had to not only create a working boat, but you also had to actually budget your build wisely and be efficient as possible with your materials.

    I worked with my usual partner, a public health major, and we felt confident going into this project as I am not only a mechanical engineering major, but also decently knowledgeable in watercraft design. I was very excited to see that the rules and judging criteria were very minimal for this challenge, which allows for a broader spectrum of opportunities to tackle the challenge. I quickly realized as I began to doodle possible designs that though there may be few rules on paper, many more rules of energy, design dynamics, and fluids strongly affected this build. The also very limited building resources contributed greatly to the restraints of the challenge as well, but together the laws of physics and lack of materials opened up a great opportunity for innovation.

    We decided to build a boat that would try to minimize materials, weight, and drag as well as maximize propulsion, steering, and design elements. We ended up making a very feasible design that, like most other challenges, with more time could have worked a lot better. Our boat featured a rotating, four-bladed paddle that was propelled by the potential energy of a fastened rubber band pre-twisted about the paddle. The paddle sat in the cutout middle of the thin boat walls. The edges of the boat were to a point in the front and tapered to a small edge in the back. On the edge in the back, we installed two fastened, parallel rudders about an inch apart for directional control. The design in mind was practical and attainable, but with limited time and lack of quality tools and materials it was hard to put the slightly complicated ideas into reality.  When finally tested, our boat sputtered forward with great hope and quickly lost propulsion as the paddle hit against the sides of the cutout. Our design had not incorporated a way to keep the rotating paddle from hitting the sides of the boat frame as the rubber band unraveled. The ultimate achilles heel’s of our design was that we relied too heavily on tape, a material not suited for wet environments, and the lack of stabilizing features for the paddle.

    The winning design was of a similar concept to use a rotating four-bladed paddle that was much more suited for the wet environment. The boat frame, much more wide than ours, allowed for the rubber band to be stretched more taught and create more potential energy to be converted to kinetic energy for the propulsion of the boat. Their four way blades also featured notched popsicle sticks and no tape, compared to our poster board-popsicle-tape combo. While the winning boat had less aesthetic design elements than ours, it was much more functional and actually almost crossed the length of the tub. The winning design was simple and definitely used fewer materials to create and therefore was very cost-effective. The winning boat of this challenge was certainly the most innovative build produced this week.

    While I didn’t win the grand prize, I certainly learned some valuable lessons. I learned that for these competitions you can create the most revolutionary idea, but if you can’t build it in the time and with the materials allotted, then it’s worthless for the competition. In real life this correlates to the restrictions of modern technology and resources and how you have to truly innovate and push the boundaries in a new way if you want to succeed. I also learned when building a product or service, you need to think about the environment the product will be in and the market the service will benefit. These end goal details have to be thought about and accounted for in the design when undertaking such a project. Another lesson I took away from this challenge was an opportunity to see first hand how the lessons I have learned in physics apply directly to the success or failure of a product. It gave me a real world glimpse of how all the physics classes will definitely pay off in the long run. All that being said, this week’s challenge definitely required true innovation to not only win, but also to compete.

    Winning Reflection - Elliot Boerding

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  • Organ Donation Awareness Challenge

    November 12, 2015
    Posted by Mike
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    This time at the Weekly Innovation Challenge, we were tasked with innovating a solution to a problem surrounding the accessibility of a resource, and pitch that idea in 90 seconds. Whether it be corporate competition, geographic barriers, or issues of quantity, this is one of the most common challenges that companies and individuals face. Companies pour millions of dollars into supply chain management strategies and resource security. Without raw goods, their product cannot work to effectively meet a need. This field of work is rife with the evolution of successful innovations. Seemingly, the solution to this challenge would only require a knowledge of how to apply some of the innovations already used by companies to access resources. However, this challenge was about a resource whose accessibility issues have proven to be significant and unwieldy. This resource is found in mass quantities all around the world, yet it is rare to come by in its useful form. This week was all about organs.

    Talking about people’s organs in such a removed and business-like manner, like I did above, seems devoid of respect. Certainly, people who donate organs, and the organs themselves should be treated with more dignity and respect; there are people’s lives at stake. Here in lies one of the biggest challenges of today’s task. How can innovation be balanced with ethical considerations. The organ donation system in the United States is struggling. Each day, 21 people die while waiting for an organ. The solution to this lack of resources is right in front of us. One organ donor can save the lives of 8 people and enhance the lives of dozens of others. Increasing participation is not as easy as saying, “donate them, you won’t be using them you’re you are dead.” Discussing organ donation brings underlying perceptions, fears and religious beliefs about death and dying into the conversation. These are topics many people would rather avoid. They are also topics that people may not be fully educated about. Death and organ harvesting are processes that are both unknown; how are we to know what we would want in a situation that we cannot even imagine. The organ donation system has been around for many years, yet problem of participation still exists. It is all too possible that innovators are looking at this process from the same distant perspective of resources and accessibility. However, this is a people problem. The organs of the living and the dead cannot be removed from the people who make the decision of whether to donate or not. So, progress in this task must take a different approach. A change in thinking; innovation. This innovation comes through the guidance of practical solutions by personal and ethical considerations.

    One example of the necessity of applying innovation that has been guided by ethics involves the proposition given by the winning team this week. The team proposed a solution where prison inmates could receive sentence reductions in return for donating organs. Conceptually, this is a very good idea. There is an ample population of people, with that resource, who would all assumedly want to exchange that resource for a good, in this case, freedom. This would undoubtedly raise the number of organ donations. There are even on site medical facilities to help with the logistics of organ transplantations. Better yet, this system could help the people of rural communities that they are often part of because of their proximity. At face value, this innovative idea
    checks all the marks. However, the boundary between ethics and innovation has been crossed.

    In health care ethics, there is a term to describe groups of people who deserve special attention to ensure that they are treated in an ethical manner. These groups are called “at-risk populations.” Some of these groups are the young, the old, and those who cannot communicate their desires. These people are more at-risk for being taken advantage of by others. Prisoners also fall under this classification. There have been several recent historical cases where the medical profession in the United States has taken advantage of the prison population for research purposes. Prisoners were exposed to a wide array of deadly or debilitating drugs, toxins and environments. This fault lies with the researchers who took advantage of a population who trusted in them, and partook in any effort that may lead to their freedom. Freedom is a value our country has fought for, and died for since its inception. It is not unreasonable to assume that prisoners would put everything on the line in order to regain freedom themselves. Incentivizing organ donation through reduced prison systems changes the decision to donate organs from life giving, to an action that is required if a person wants to regain their own life. Even calling it a decision on the behalf of the prisoner is questionable, as the option is so slanted: have one procedure, so that you can return to a life outside prison. This incentive will not truly innovate a solution to the problem. The problem is that people are afraid, uneducated about the process, or do not have enough opportunities to sign up. This solution does not address these fears or other issues. It merely incentivizes behavior in spite of personal qualms. There are many other problems to think about as well. What are the demographics of our prison system, is it not disproportionately poor, minority populations? A system that sources organs from poor minorities to benefit the lives of people not in prison begs further examination. Also, this solution does not target the problem in a comprehensive manner. One organ donor can save the lives of 8 and improve the lives of dozens of others, if that organ donor has died and many of their organs can be utilized. Prisoners would only be able to offer a limited number of specific organs. This would certainly help some, but not target the needs of organs which are more difficult to come by. Another issue arises if there is only a few organs needed, but many prison donors. Which prisoner gets the chance to donate; the chance at freedom? Good behavior is something every inmate can offer to reduce their time. But not everyone can donate an organ.

    Are others punished more because of their inability to donate? Nowadays, a five-year sentence can be reduced to three years in prison and two years on probation. This is essentially the idea of this solution. But, how long until judges save time and say your sentence is three years and an organ or five years in jail? Organ donation appears to be a cruel or unusual punishment at this point in the timeline, and that thought should not change once someone is already in jail. The ethical considerations do not stop there, but they steer innovation in a different direction, one that considers the people behind the resources.

    Our group, this time a finance major, a mechanical engineer major, and myself, a public health major, combated the issue of organ donation through a plan we called Organ-ize for Life: a social campaign to change the conversation from Death and Dying to Life and Living. Recognizing that education, stigma, and access to decision making comprised of the significant barriers to organ donation, we focused our project on targeted education, social awareness and governmental policy. Our education programs are intended for teenagers and young adults, who are likely to be making the decision to be an organ donor or not. Our campaign targets this population through billboards, television advertising, Facebook posts, and Buzzfeed articles. The topic of these marketing efforts is to raise awareness of the life giving decision organ donation can be. Marketing material would include testimonials from people who received organs and how that has influenced their life. This brings light to lives that can be improved through organ donation. Government policy would address three issues. Creating legally binding documents that allow individuals to create personal organ donation plans would help give people a sense of control over a topic of which they have no control over. Secondly, government policy could provide an estate sales tax break for families of those who pass away and donate organs. This would incentivize the action in a way that reduces the odds of someone making the decision for reasons that affect their own life. Finally, the government could offer organ donation sign-ups on voter ballots. This would increase the opportunity to sign up, as well as the prevalence that people would consider signing up. Our solution focused on creating an environment that promotes everyone to participate in organ donation through focusing on the barriers to education and opportunities to sign up as well as confronting the stigma associated with death and organ donation by changing the conversation from death and dying to life and living through real people’s story. In this way, we are using people, not systems, to solve this people problem. This week’s challenge turned out to be the most thought provoking challenge I have been to yet. An hour partaking in this impromptu challenge turned into hours of discussion with my peers and involved topics that require an intersectionality of professions. This challenge drove discussions of morality, social justice and current events. As Barack Obama aims to change both the federal healthcare system and federal prison system, this topic is especially relevant. Admittedly, I was not expecting the Weekly Innovation Challenge to serve as a platform to discuss and reflect upon issues of this depth. However, after this week, I think I have been approaching the challenges in the wrong way. While this may have been the first challenge that I have recognized the importance of the human and therefore ethical component of innovation, these factors certainly have existed in all challenges of innovation. There is always human capital behind all resources, behind all processes, and behind all ideas, and in front of all implementations of innovation. It is important to always keep this in mind so that people do not become the opponent of innovation, but the guider of innovation.

    Winning Reflection - Ted Stewart-Hester

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  • Rebus Puzzle Challenge

    November 5, 2015
    Posted by Mike
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    This afternoon, I felt very nostalgic as Rebus puzzles were the subject of this week’s Weekly Innovation Challenge hosted by Saint Louis University’s Parks College of Engineering, Aviation, and Technology. Rebus puzzles use words, shapes, numbers and symbols to form a pictograph, which reveals a word or phrase when solved. When I was younger, Rebus puzzles would even compete with the comics section of newspapers for my attention. However, it was a love-hate relationship, as feeling of frustration would rival feelings of satisfaction when trying to solve the clever, often difficult puzzles. This week, our challenge was to solve the most puzzles. The challenge was broken into six regular rounds, with two bonus rounds for extra points. For each regular round, teams had 3 minutes to solve a series of six Rebus puzzles, for one point each. This week, there were half a dozen teams with about three members each; which meant plenty of competition.

    In usual fashion, each of our team members had to be pursuing a degree in different major topics. This week I teamed up with students majoring in biology and biochemistry. Having taken many science courses myself as a public health major, our team would have benefitted had the challenge been related to the physical sciences. However, this challenge required us to utilize a more abstract and spatial understanding. We originally thought to split up the six puzzles between the three of us. After the first round, we realized that we had plenty of time to work through them all. So, first, we each looked for ones we knew right off the bat. After consulting each other, we then moved on to ones that we had trouble with. Often, just the act of vocalizing our different thoughts led us to the answer.

    On a surface level, this challenge was enjoyable and reminded me of my childhood, but upon reflection, it revealed itself to hold lessons about innovation. During the challenge, our team commented to each other that we thought this challenge would be significantly harder if we were not so familiar with the English language and its phrases. Our knowledge provided a baseline context for us to then think spatially and creatively while solving the puzzles. However, language has such a structured form in our everyday life that it can be difficult to think and interpret creative forms of language. This experience is not limited to puzzles, however. Within each person’s profession, there is also a unique language and jargon. There are terms, abbreviations, frameworks and methods that are unique to the field and become structured into our everyday lives through repetition and familiarity.  They provide us a way to easily communicate about challenges with our colleagues based on a common knowledge; just like how our team’s knowledge of English helped us solve the puzzle. While this is positive, we also need to be aware of the limitations of this shared language. Sometimes this language can work to funnel our thoughts into structured concepts, instead of looking at them in new and abstract ways. One way to counter this problem is to include members of other disciplines in problem solving teams. This principle, which is supported by the Weekly Innovation Challenge, allows for ideas to be examined in new ways, in conjunction with members of those fields. When we talk and think exclusively in the ways that we were trained by our field, we can also end up isolating people from other professions when they feel left out or feel too uninformed to participate. So, this challenge taught me the importance of balancing problem solving processes we have already formed with problem solving with incorporating new modes of thought to truly innovate. Being half-way through my fourth year at SLU, the Weekly Innovation Challenge provides an unrivaled out of the classroom learning experience that serves to both motivate and enhance my educational experience. I will certainly be back for the next Weekly Innovation Challenge.

    Winning Reflection - Ted Stewart-Hester

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