Inventing From the Ground Up

How One New England High School Sustains Inventiveness

"Looking back three years ago, I couldn't have imagined this project being as successful as it has been," said Tom Sundman, team captain of Project Argus. "It started as a simple solution to help monitor a greenhouse at a neighboring school. Three years later the project is still going strong and supported by teachers, community members, college professors, businesses, and of course, Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams."

Project Argus is a remote-sensor networking device to monitor the weather; development began in 2005 through a continuation grant from Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, an initiative of the Lemelson-MIT Program that funds high school invention projects to inspire a new generation of inventors. Sundman joined the Littleton High School InvenTeam as a high school senior; the InvenTeam now refers to itself as Team Argus.

Project Argus' roots actually germinated in fall 2002, when Littleton High School was selected as one of three Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams to kick-start the initiative's pilot phase, through the encouragement of Bill Church, Littleton High School teacher of physics, physical science, and robotics.

Dubbed the Main Street Project, the Littleton High School InvenTeam applied its grant to the development of a heating system that captured waste heat from the high school and transferred it below the school's sidewalks to melt snow and ice that accumulated during winter storms. After additional testing in 2003-2004, the system was integrated into the construction plan of the new entrance to the school building, where it continues to be monitored and functions today.

Littleton High School's drive to invent didn't stop there. In fall 2005, Church, Sundman, and fellow students teamed up to invent a device that determined when the first snowfall occurred. Since their solution was a success, it was also applied within the school's greenhouse to monitor the air temperature and moisture. This device, named Argus, quickly began to expand its watch.

"After completion of our first version of Argus, word got around to our town manager and soon to our highway department, where they thought it would be a cool application to use on the rural roads of our town," said Sundman. Thus, was born the impetus of Littleton High School's next generation InvenTeam, which would see a processional transition from an in-class (physics) collaborative of 40 students and 10 mentors to an extracurricular activity with a few dedicated students, which included Sundman.

Littleton, a small New England town of less than 5,000 people and high school with just over 300 students total, is accustomed to precarious weather conditions due to elevations that range from 800 to 1,300 ft. Per the request of the town highway department, the Argus was morphed into a communication medium that would monitor weather conditions and inform night road crews which areas need to be plowed through an email, cell-phone text message, or phone call. George Chartier of the Town of Littleton Highway Department has been a mentor and sponsor of the InvenTeam's development of Argus. "This project will be of great use to the highway department; it will have updated pictures with temperature and humidity that we will be able to access easily. We hope to have three to four Argus units at different locations," said Chartier.

According to Sundman, "The work that we are doing is really cool. After my senior year in high school, and first year as a part of InvenTeams, I was really interested in developing our invention further. I felt that it had a lot of potential to help our community, and if we could continue working on it, help others as well."

The next phase focused on developing Argus as a remote technology that could withstand harsh weather conditions, and developing the InvenTeam to work as a remote collaborative. Sundman was at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; Matt Mukerjee, who started the Argus with Sundman at Littleton, was at Dartmouth College; and two students were anchored in Littleton.

The updated version was exhibited at the InvenTeams Odyssey, the culminating event for InvenTeams grantees, in June 2007. As was described by Sundman: "It's a computer inside a water-proof box with a web camera and sensors internally and externally. It uses WIFI access to broadcast data that it collects, [including temperature, humidity, and barometric pressure] to a web server."

Argus takes a picture every minute to verify road conditions indicated by the data, such as snowing or sleeting. It is powered by solar panels, and uses a charge controller and voltage regulator, so that the solar power does not overwhelm the system. Littleton High School InvenTeam student Anson Hastings contributed much of the physical component building.

According to Church, the momentum of the invention project is sustained "by having previous year's students stay in touch with current students AND having a local client – our town's highway department." Church commented that the involvement of both "communicates to the current group of students how valuable the project is to recent alumni as well as to their community." Former students join the Littleton High School InvenTeam over their winter breaks to move the project forward.

The 2007-2008 season for the InvenTeam boasted eleven members: five from Littleton three from RPI, two from Northeastern University, and one from Dartmouth College. The InvenTeam has benefited from branching out. "At RPI we have a workshop on campus with a wide variety of tools that is open 24/7. The Northeastern team has faculty expertise at its entrepreneurship school to investigate possibilities of turning Argus into a commercial product," said Sundman, whose role has graduated from developing to managing. It has been a challenge to coordinate scheduling among satellite teams; however, e-mail and Skype video-conferencing have helped keep the teams connected.

Argus version 2.0 is now in development. Hastings revealed that the Argus was previously posted on the high school's rooftop to overlook the sidewalk; however, its wires and duct tape did not pass fire-code laws. The InvenTeam recently designed a more compatible structure and secured it to the school's roof again to test its functionality.

Hastings, along with InvenTeam members Tom Bean, Alex Corey, Chris Owen, and Ben Canfield, currently at Littleton High School, will also work on a new version with an upgraded computer that has a PCI slot for better wireless function and a high-powered receiver to attain a longer range.

"Doing InvenTeams is like an open book, where you pick what you want to do and work on it," said Hastings. "It's not like other projects where you're told what to do, and you all have the same outcome."

"By the time we return to the InvenTeams Odyssey in June 2008, we will be presenting Argus version 3.0, which will have more wireless and camera capabilities than previous versions of Argus. At the end of the school year, our goal is to have a version of Argus that will be easy to replicate and place around our town for some extensive winter testing [during] 2008-2009," commented Sundman.

Argus is customizable and compatible with a multitude of sensors. Future applications include the "Sentinel" for home security and the "Predator" to alert people of animals on the highway while driving.

"These are authentic projects with real goals and deadlines," said Church. "It's exciting, and the students really work hard on them. That was as true during the first year as it is today!"

Sundman added, "One of the coolest things about this project is that each year the Argus Team grows bigger, we find other students that are just as interested as us and share the common goal of completing the project."

In Littleton, New Hampshire, the inventive culture has been sparking – InvenTeam members grasp the significance of their work by tackling solutions to real-world problems in their own community. Sustainability is paramount and cultivated through the strength of mentorships that evolve as the InvenTeam grows, including former high school members now participating as college members, in addition to dedicated teachers and sponsors. The school has a successful blueprint for hands-on problem solving and learning the principles of engineering, science, technology and design – to name a few.

"With a huge first year experience and smaller projects in subsequent years, we have made a solid name for InvenTeams locally," said Church. "By making it a part of the fabric of how we do things in Littleton, I am looking at a great future of very exciting student work."

The InvenTeam has recently been awarded a continuation grant from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams initiative to contribute funding to its upcoming work on Project Argus.

According to Sundman, his InvenTeams experience has taught him "anything is possible."