Coming up with a new invention is tough, but selling it can be a real challenge. That's what Crittenden Middle School students in Barbara Wright's seventh-grade science class learned recently as they tapped into their entrepreneurial skills and knowledge of medical science to pitch their idea for a new product.
Over the last two months, students brainstormed and designed medical technology that would help people cope with or prevent diseases. Then they had to pitch their ideas to a panel in a style mimicking the reality show Shark Tank. In the show, an inventor pitches an idea to potential investors.
And Wright went out of her way to give students an experience as close to the real thing as possible, with cameras rolling and a panel of five people, including a school nurse and a systems analyst at Stanford Hospital, listening intently to each idea -- ultimately choosing one to be the winner.
Some inventions focused on preventative medicine. Rather than try to tackle better ways to pass a kidney stone, one group proposed an ice pop with ingredients that would block kidney stone formation altogether. The product, called "Kidney Pops," would include citrus fruit juice including lemon, orange and mango juice.
Would it work? Some evidence has shown that citrus juices can increase the level of citrate in the kidneys, according to John Hopkins University. The calcium in kidneys binds the citrate instead of oxalate and phosphate, preventing the formation of stones.
One student in the group has a father who has had trouble with kidney stones multiple times, and would have taken advantage of food marketed for kidney stone prevention.
Other students designed projects to better cope with diseases. Two groups designed electric wheelchairs with moving components that could act as mechanical legs, giving people with muscular dystrophy the ability to stand up, run, and jump.
Wright said that by using the format of the show, students got to show off what they learned about the human body and medical technology without the need for a long, dry presentation. She said students also had to use critical thinking to come up with their own ideas for how to solve problems, giving their research context in the real world.
"It's the whole idea of having them invent a product or re-design an old one (that) made them think about the box," Wright said.
The added complexity of the project is that students didn't have to just invent a project out of thin air -- they had to sell it, too. They had to distinguish their invention from things already on the market, give it an aesthetic appeal and name a reasonable price without compromising the product.
One group proposed an automatic insulin injector, which exists on the market already, designed as a bracelet that could be worn as a "stylish" way to get insulin. Other groups with inventions to help diabetics manage their blood sugar inevitably had to shoulder a higher cost because insulin is not cheap.
An authentic audience
The medical technology project is just one of many months-long endeavors throughout the district to bring project-based learning to classrooms. One of the goals of project-based learning is for students to take their research and classwork over two to three months and use it to make a presentation to an "authentic" audience composed of people who work in the field -- in this case, science, medicine and technology.
With the help of former Crittenden teacher Steve Grayson, Wright said she was able to cobble together an outstanding panel of "sharks" to listen to the students' ideas, ask questions and judge which group had the best idea.
"I sent out emails to literally anyone I could think of that could be related in any way to medicine, technology or innovation," Wright said.
Although the panel made students more nervous when they presented, Wright said it was instrumental in getting students to go the extra distance for their presentation. Multiple cameras were recording the event too, but Wright said it was less about recording the event to watch later, and more about giving students that "live production" feeling they'd get if they were really on the TV show. Wright said it definitely had an effect.
"If they presented in front of a classroom of their peers, they wouldn't feel that same need to rise to the occasion," Wright said.