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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 11, 2009

Four tween inventors solve life’s problems with ingenuity

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

BERNE — Dylan Germani’s grandmother broke her leg.

The wide-eyed sixth-grader at Berne-Knox-Westerlo watched as she struggled to use a wheelchair and her canes.

“My Grandma had to bring all that stuff with her,” he said with a sigh.

He came up with a solution: What if the two canes slid down the back of the wheelchair and served as its handles? He proudly shows a model he built that does just that.

Extracting one of the copper canes, he says, “You could push another button here to make the cane the height that you need.”

What was the response of Germani’s grandmother to the invention? “She said, ‘I might need one of those,’” he reported with a grin.

The invention propelled Germani to be named a finalist at this year’s Invention Convention. He was joined in that honor by three of his inventive classmates — Allison Haller, Shannon Quay, and Allie Tedeschi.

The three girls are friends and sat, side by side, at the awards ceremony on May 28 at the Schenectady Museum with Germani behind them. The 100 finalists — there were eight from BKW — had been winnowed from a field of 1,100 applicants, representing 31 schools across the Capital District.

The girls held hands as they waited to hear whose names would be called. Quay’s was called first. She had invented a locker stopper.

The lockers lining the hallway at the Berne-Knox-Westerlo Middle School are narrow.  “Every day, when the kid next to me opens his locker, it would cover mine,” she said. So Quay invented a device — like a bungee cord anchored at one end to the inside of the locker and at the other end to its door — to solve the problem.

Her winning model is decorated just like a real locker, with a school picture, memos, and a “Bulldog Pride” banner taped on the walls. Inside are a cheerleader’s pom-pom and miniature books.

Germani’s name was called next, and then Tedeschi’s. She had made a model of a filling station called “Allie’s Pit Stop,” featuring large containers of windshield washer fluid next to the gas pumps. The eco-friendly system, rather than wasting bottles for fluid, lets the driver fill up on the fluid directly, just like pumping gasoline.

“It helps when you’re in a hurry and you have to get gas and your windshield’s dirty,” said Tedeschi. “I always watch my mom,” she went on about how she got the idea. “She thinks it’s amazing.”

As the finalists were announced one at a time, the girls said it was nerve-wracking to listen to the list as each school name was called; when they heard a “B,” they hoped it would be Berne-Knox-Westerlo.

Haller was the very last of all the 25 finalists to be called. How did she feel at that moment? “I was proud of myself,” said Haller.

She had thought of her invention around Christmas time, she said. “I read about Christmas trees catching on fire,” Haller said. Then she did research to learn that salt and baking soda would put out a fire. So she invented a Christmas tree ornament that extinguishes fire.

From the front, the glass globe looks like a snowman’s face; in back, a door is marked out that, when seared by heat, would open, allowing the powder inside to come out and smother the flames.

“Keep your eyes and ears open”

Karen Barber, BKW’s sixth-grade science teacher, has had her students enter their inventions at the convention every year since it started in 1998. They have always done well even as the contest has grown each year. That first year, 167 students entered and now well over a thousand enter.

The program is sponsored by the Schenectady Museum, where the inventions are displayed. The 100 semi-finalists — which included BKW’s Sam Abbott for his “Keyhole Light,“ Eden Becker for her “Halfsee,” Lucas Becker for his “Sweep Aside,” and Cody Fisher for his “Tip-Up Light” — are invited to the awards ceremony where the 25 finalists are named.

The finalists — the highest honor — are selected by a panel of about 30 judges including General Electric employees and retirees, museum staff and board members, and patent attorneys.

This year’s keynote speaker — a grown-up inventor — was Glen Merfeld, manager of the Chemical Energy Systems Laboratory at GE Global Research, which is researching battery, lighting, and solar technologies.

Barber is modest about her role in her students’ success and wants them to speak for themselves. “The reason I love doing it,” she said, “is it helps them solve problems in life...They look at life and the problems their grandparents have or their friends have or they have, and they figure out how to solve them.”

Barber has taught her students about a local need long ago — delivering kerosene in five-gallon jugs — that led to Clifford Hannay’s invention of the hose reel. The Hannay Hose Reel factory is the dominant business in Westerlo today.

Barber starts each school year in September getting her sixth-grade students to think about problems they might solve. “‘Keep your eyes and ears open,’ I tell them,” she said.

She teaches them about inventions in all fields, including music and sports, not just science.

After her students have made their own, she enters each in the Invention Convention competition; this year there were 75 BKW sixth-graders and 75 entrants.

“To be honest,” Barber said, “I can never predict who is going to be picked.”

What’s important, though, is not the winning but the way of looking at the world that comes with inventing, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re having problems in school or are an ‘A’ student,” she said. “Anyone can invent. It’s not like a science fair, where so many kids make volcanoes. This is different. It’s yours. No one else will have it. You can explain it.”

She went on, “I’ve tried to instill in them, even though you come from a small school, you can compete. Your ideas are just as good as the kids’ at the larger, wealthier schools...They’ve always proved me right,” concluded Barber.

“I feel smart,” said Shannon Quay of how being in the Invention Convention had affected her. The approach has caught on with her 9-year-old brother. “Ever since I’ve been in,“ said Quay, “he’s been inventing lots of things.”

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