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Experience of a Lifetime for R-MA’s Future Engineers

R-MA Students Amazed by Conrad Foundation Spirit of Innovation Challenge Experience

For the members of “The Greeners,” the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Challenge was a peek at a larger world, a few days in which their minds were opened to dreaming and endless possibilities. It was, as a few of the team members described it, “life-changing.” 

This was the second consecutive year in which a team from Randolph-Macon Academy made it into the finals of the Spirit of Innovation Challenge Summit held in Houston, TX. From among approximately 250 initial competitors from around the globe, only 20 teams—five in each category—made it to the finals. The R-MA team competed in the Energy & Environment category against four other teams. 

The Greeners, a student engineering team from Randolph-Macon Academy, made it to the finals of the Conrad Foundation's Spirit of Innovation Challenge Summit. "The Greeners" members were Jon Moore ’14 of Glenwood, MD; Maddie Chafin ’14 of Wake Forest, NC; Grace Alexander ’14 of Front Royal, VA; Edwin Guyette ’14 of West Chesterfield, NH; and Benjamin Gillis ’14 of Front Royal, VA.  Dave Gillis, the physics and engineering teacher at Randolph-Macon Academy, was the team coach.

The annual competition, presented by Lockheed Martin and Battelle, challenges teams of students ages 13-18 from around the world to combine innovation and entrepreneurship along with STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to create commercially-viable products to benefit humanity.

Using pezioelectonic technology, The Greeners worked to create a bicycle that would generate electricity through day-to-day use. A small generator on the bike would collect the generated electricity, which could then be used to power the biker’s iPod, cell phone, or other mobile device. Alternately, the generator’s stored electricity could be transferred to “the grid,” potentially creating a significant source of electricity in a city where bikes are common. (Because the pezio strips are so sensitive, even simple vibrations would generate electricity, so bikes stored near streets or subways could continue to gather electricity even when stationary.) 

While the group did not win the top place in their category, the experience of attending the Summit from April 10-13 was a reward in itself. The first evening there, one of their members had to give their “elevator speech,” and Guyette was selected to do the job. “By presentation day, he was right-on,” said Mr. Gillis. “They all nailed it.”The R-MA engineering students managed to find time to do a little sight-seeing during their time in Texas.

Once The Greeners got a feel for the competition, they realized they had a lot of work to do. As a result, they worked on their project during every spare moment they had, staying up until 12:30 a.m. each night. Their final presentation was Friday morning.

“There was a buzz of energy about what we were presenting, and it was all by word-of-mouth,” said Mr. Gillis. “We had judges and other people from other tables coming to give us ideas. We presented to five judges—they had different judges every day because they brought in judges who were experts in the subject matter each day. When we finished our pitch, there was a long pause, because the judges had to think of questions. With the other presentations, they were quick with questions, but our presentation was so rock-solid they had to stop and think. That was a very confirming thing.”

The R-MA students were able to meet astronaut Alan Bean during the week they were at the summit.

In between their presentations and preparations, the students and Mr. Gillis were able to attend sessions presented by professionals and icons such as Alan Bean, the fourth person to walk on the moon. “He told us three things,” said Mr. Gillis. “First, be a good teammate. Find the positive in every teammate. Second, hold on to your dreams. No one else will believe in your dream, because it’s your dream. And here’s what we learned about leadership—it’s when you trust your teammates.”

“It was a definite shift in how I think about things,” Edwin said of the five-day experience. “I thought [the people there] would be rich entrepreneurs, maybe stuck up, but they are down-to-earth people, aggressive but outgoing people who deserve to make a difference in the world.” 

“It was life-changing,” said Ben. “Sitting in a seat in an eleventh grade classroom, I don’t see myself in college. I can’t make that transition. But when you go places like that, it helps you bridge that gap. If they’re that talented, then I am too. It makes you realize what’s possible and that it’s achievable.”

“I learned a lot,” said Mr. Gillis. “I learned a lot about technology, a lot about what’s possible. I learned to dream again and how important it is to dream. And now, my dream is for everyone [in my classes] to go to this event.” 

Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA), founded in 1892, is a college-preparatory, coeducational day and boarding school for students in grades 6 through 12.  Students in grades 9-12 participate in R-MA’s 91st Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) and have the option to participate in a unique flight program. R-MA is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and is located in Front Royal, VA.


Special thanks to Dave Gillis P'14 and Mindy Alexander P'14 for providing the photos from the event.