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Young Inventors Conquer Everyday Problems

Students find new solutions at Clifton Elementary's Innovation and Invention Fair.

Parents and students lined the hallways at Clifton Elementary School Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, waiting for their turn to present their inventions to professionals.

Inside the school's small gymnasium were long tables filled with ideas brought to life: walkthrough dog washers based on a motorized car wash; two different variations of the pencil; gadgets to help absentminded parents find lost keys and cell phones.

Clifton Elementary principal Arthur Polton said he had seen too many science fairs when he arrived at the school three years ago.

"I'm not a science person, but I wanted to do something different," he said. "This gives the kids a chance to work through the creative problem-solving model."

Students have a little over a month to take their ideas, either for a new invention or improving something that already exists, and create a prototype.

Sixth grade students Tabitha Timm and Hillary Hollaway, for example, wanted a better way to brush their teeth.

"You don't know if you clean all your teeth because you can't see," said Hillary.

The toothbrush they designed came in a kit, with a spray to coat each tooth and help release plaque. The toothbrush, as they designed it, would sound a small alarm if teeth were not brushed and would also indicate if the brusher was using too much force on teeth.

"My favorite flavor would probably be the spearmint," Tabitha said.

Their target audience would be anyone who brushes their teeth, the girls said.

"Adults think the most about how they brush their teeth, but dentists and kids who eat a lot of candy might be interested too," Hillary said.

FOURTH GRADERS Roxie Matten and Abby Wright were inspired by Roxie's standard poodle to invent the Fetchmaster 3000.

"People don't always have a lot of time to play with their dogs, but the dogs want to play all the time," Roxie said.

Their invention consisted of a wire mesh cone inverted on top of a metal tube. A ball tossed into the cone would travel down the tube, gaining speed as it fell, and roll out onto the floor or ground. The dog would pick up the ball, they explained, which would smell like a dog treat. The dog would then take the ball back to the cone, where he would get a treat for putting the ball back where it started.

Eventually, the dog would be able to play fetch alone, making its owner feel less guilty about not playing more.

"If you have a small dog, you could buy a ramp to reach the top of the cone," Roxie said.

"We like our invention," Abby said. "But we learned that if you used a metal tube for where the ball comes out, the ball will come out faster because there's less friction to slow it down."

To cut down on shouting and miscommunication in their homes, a team of fifth graders invented 4 Notes, an ambiguously-titled creation that looked a lot like a mailbox on a series of wires.

"A lot of us have experience shouting through the house," said Dylan Reffitt. "Your voice gets tired or your feet get sore walking around."

"If your mom is in the kitchen and she wants to ask you something about dinner, she has to stop working," Emily Fisher added.

So, along with Mackenzie Schuler and M. E. Brown, the students invented a cross between traditional mail and the pneumatic tubes used in banks: The 4 Notes system uses a propeller system to push a paper or thin metal box from one room to another, delivering notes or small items weighing up to 1 pound.

"It's easy to put up, you just need fishing wire," M.E. said.

"You could also send someone their glasses if they left them in another room," Mackenzie said.

The students spent several Saturdays coming up with their project and developing their designs along the way. They agreed their final product was a good choice

"The people I interviewed about this problem all liked it, they thought it would be a good idea and work really well in their homes," M.E. said.

STUDENTS AT Clifton Elementary have the added incentive to participate in the fair because all entries are judged by representatives from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, people who deal with real inventors all the time.

"I'm surprised by what these students come up with, but I'm also glad to know kids are enthusiastic about their projects," said judge Dave Lacey.

"They come up with things that are real problems in their lives, mostly put together during play dates and sleepovers," said judge Karen Hastings.

Hastings was impressed with a robotic pencil that used voice recognizing software. Not only did the inventors tap into a market of people with messy handwriting, but possibly people who cannot write or hold a pencil because of a muscular disability.

"We need more schools to do this, especially with this age group," Lacey said. "You can't start early enough."

Lisa Waniel said she was a little hesitant to let her kindergarten student participate like her third grader.

"She had a really good time and a really good idea so I'm glad I changed my mind," Waniel said about her youngest child. "I'm really surprised by what some of these kids thought up that are really very practical."

Laura Kehoe said what she saw from the Innovation and Invention Fair was a far cry from the science fair she was in as a child.

"We had nothing as good as this when we were kids," she laughed.

Both of her children were involved in the fair, which she jokingly called a requirement in her house.

"I think it's good presentation practice, plus the kids like to get involved," she said. "They're already excited for next year."

The People's Choice Award winners were Tessa Fletcher and Amy Jenkins, fourth grade students, whose Guinea Pig Gym was selected as best in show by parents and school staff; and the Ferris Rail Project, by fifth graders Adam Zaman and Joshua Blaz with second grader Virginia Blaz, chosen by students.