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Fifth annual EurekaFest celebrates invention

From the seasoned scientist to the high school hobbyist, Lemelson-MIT festival celebrates the innovative spirit.
This week, from June 16 to 18, inventors of all stripes are converging on the MIT campus for the fifth annual EurekaFest, sponsored by the Lemelson-MIT Program. The three-day event is geared toward inspiring young innovators, celebrating the thrill and spirit of invention by highlighting intrepid inventors at the high school, college and professional levels.

Since its founding in 1994, the Lemelson-MIT Program has set up a number of awards to encourage and support innovation. The $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize, the highest award bestowed by the program, is presented each year to a mid-career professional who has patented technology with “significant value to society.” This year’s prize went to John Rogers, professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rogers — a physicist, poet and entrepreneur — works in the field of flexible electronics, engineering biocompatible devices designed to wrap around organs and conform to tissues in the body, mapping and monitoring health. He will give a special presentation of his work during an awards ceremony Friday night.

The festivities will also feature a talk by Elizabeth Hausler, winner of this year’s $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability. Hausler is founder and CEO of Build Change, a nonprofit group that constructs earthquake-resistant houses in developing countries. She teaches homeowners to build sustainable, low-cost houses out of locally available materials. Her group is now helping to rebuild areas of Haiti still recovering from the 2010 earthquake.

MIT graduate student Alice Chen is one of a number of student prizewinners who will be showing off work this week. Chen is the 2011 winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, awarded each year to an MIT senior or graduate student who has developed or improved a product or process. Chen, a graduate student in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology, has five patents pending and has founded a company, Sienna Labs, which is developing medical pigments to improve dermatological laser surgery.

Inspiring future inventors

Michael Cima, faculty director of the Lemelson-MIT Program and the Sumitomo Electric Industries Professor of Engineering, says the event is meant to inspire the next generation of inventors, particularly at the high school level. The Lemelson Foundation runs a national program, InvenTeams, that has supported innovative high school students since its inception in 2002.

“We need innovators in this country,” Cima says. “If you look at Cambridge, there used to be manufacturing everywhere. Now the only things we make anymore are ideas. That drives a huge economy. So we need to inspire young people to be part of that.”

Each fall, the Lemelson-MIT Program selects a number of teams from high schools across the country, granting each team $10,000 to develop solutions to real-world problems. Throughout the year, the students report back on their progress. As a culmination to the year, teams are invited to EurekaFest to display their projects.

This week, InvenTeams from New York, Nebraska, Oregon and Indiana will get a chance to showcase a wide range of inventions, including a portable disaster-relief shelter, a pressure-sensitive writing tool and a tracking device that repositions a solar panel throughout the day, maximizing solar power.

EurekaFest will conclude Saturday with an all-day design challenge for high school students, held at the Museum of Science in Boston. More than 200 students will attempt to design wind-powered turbines strong enough to hoist metal garbage cans to the museum’s 40-foot-high ceiling. Spectators can witness the dramatic finale, as some 30 cans are fired into the air at once in a spirited salute to invention.

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