EVX Team Wins Spirit of Innovation Awards

Just in case you hadn’t heard, the West Philly Hybrid X Team won another major national competition. Five members of the EVX Team traveled to California in May to present the Team’s work on the Electric Very Light Car at the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards.

The competition had three divisions, and the EVX Team won the Clean Energy Division. The students came home as Conrad Scholars and the Team received $5,000 to continue its work. Paul Holt, the Auto Academy’s science teacher coached the Team and he wrote some great blogs about the trip. Please share in this great victory and read Paul’s story.

It’s 11:36 Pacific Time (almost 3 AM back in Philly), and we just finished up a solid run-through of our presentation. We all gathered in my room to have an informal practice session. Our hotel is very low-budget, and in a neighborhood that the kids said resembles Compton, but everyone contributed to a very energetic and supportive practice session. The students’ speeches are finally getting to the point where they are feeling comfortable and confident. It is truly remarkable to see how far they have come in the past couple of months.

Kaya has his speech recorded in his iPod, and played it over and over on the flight to practice. Brandon has his silky-smooth delivery down pat. Even Leon displayed some energy. Along with their growing confidence, it was also nice to see the kids offering each other true constructive criticism and feedback. Mr. Boxman is a great addition to the trip, and helped keep the kids stay focused and relaxed.

The majority of our first day was spent traveling. It was the first flight for Kaya and Leon, and they made many beginners’ mistakes…bought overpriced airport merchandise…put the tray table down too soon…and complained about everything. But mostly it was a pain-free journey and we all arrived safe and sound.

The Northern California weather is excellent, and upon arrival we hopped in our deluxe rental van, and drove on a 5-lane highway to go 0.2 miles to eat at an In-and-Out Burger. Tomorrow we are meeting for a morning practice, followed by a private tour of Google’s headquarters, and then we are heading to NASA’s Moffett Field Research Center for the opening ceremonies of the Spirit of Innovation Awards.

I’ll have some pictures up in the next 24 hours. Hope all is well back home, and thanks for the support!

On Thursday we were granted the rare opportunity to take a guided tour of Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. These tours are not available to the public, but a friend of mine who works in Google’s advertising department was kind enough to take a few hours out of her workday to show the kids around the facilities. Actually, taking a few hours out of your workday seems to be mandatory at Google. Kaya astutely described the setting as “some sort of Utopia,” and it certainly felt that way, with employees taking mid-day breaks to play volleyball, shoot some pool, pour themselves an espresso, or take a ride on one of the multicolored Google-bikes. The team members all took a ride on a bike once we were out of sight of the strange Google-guards. We learned that Google is employing some of the same energy-saving ideas that we have been talking about, with small electric vehicles to travel around the facilities, and a ride-share program that gives employees use of a hybrid car if they need to run an errand during the workday. We also got to go check out their solar panels, which are on the roofs of all of Google’s buildings. An engineer was kind enough to answer some of the kids’ questions, and he was impressed by Brandon’s and Stefon’s ability to intelligently respond to one of the questions he uses to interview engineering applicants.

From Google we went directly to NASA’s Moffett Field Research Station for the Opening Ceremonies of the Conrad Spirit of Innovation Awards. It was a blast, with an inspirational and entertaining talk from “Mythbusters’” own Adam Savage and a performance from Los Angeles band Ozomatli. The Grammy-nominated band asked for volunteers to write a few lines about how they “Get their genius on” and come rap/sing it for the crowd. Kaya was the first person in the whole crowd who was brave enough to come on stage, which led to a highly entertaining parade of kids showing their creativity and enthusiasm.

On Friday we focused our energy on making sure our presentation was good to go. Mr. Boxman helped pump the kids up, and we did a number of run-throughs with simulated question and answer sessions. When the time came to head over to the ballroom for our presentation session, the kids were ready, but nervous.

Our session was from 4:30 to 6:00, and we were the third group to go. After the first group presented an idea to install a biological electricity infrastructure that relies on small trash cans in each family’s household, the judges unleashed a barrage of questions and comments, pointing out many flaws in the students’ design. Shamere passed me a note that said, “These judges go H.A.M.,” which is basically slang for “These judges don’t mess around.” The next presenter fared better, with an interesting idea (and working prototype) for a personal portable toilet that can be used in impoverished countries and disaster areas, with the waste being deposited daily into some sort of energy-generating composter. The student was from the Isle of Man, in the UK, and proudly showed the crowd that his hand-made cardboard prototype could support his full weight of “20 stones.”

Then it came time for our presentation. As soon as Stefon started speaking, I knew they were going to knock it out of the park. He was so poised, clear, and confident as he described the history of the EVX Team, and the basic design of the Electric Very Light Car. Shamere then followed with a strong argument for why the EVLC could outperform the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf. Kaya’s section on the consumer features of the EVLC really got the crowd involved. When he called the Honda Civic a “gas guzzler,” the crowd responded with a great deal of laughter. Leon articulated our business plan very clearly and confidently, and Brandon finished strong with the environmental benefits and a summary of the presentation.

Unlike with the other presenters, the first thing we heard the judges say was, “That was an excellent presentation.” They then went on to ask a number of technical questions, which Stefon stepped up to the plate and handled. Listening to him answer the questions from the judges (which included at least 5 PhDs), I felt like I was listening to a professional. Not once did he get rattled, and the judges could instantly tell that they were dealing with a student team that had true expertise with their product. At the conclusion of the presentation, the kids got a roaring applause, and many of the judges made their way over to our table to shake hands and compliment the kids. We then filmed our second interview of the day, for an internet TV show. I took the kids to see Fast 5 to celebrate and relax, and Stefon proudly declared that the movie featured “no electric or hybrid vehicles!”

Throughout the Spirit of Innovation Summit, the kids have gotten the chance to listen and have conversations with some truly amazing people. Edward Lu, former astronaut and Google employee who headed the Googlemaps street view project…Nancy Conrad, the chairman of the Conrad foundation…David Eilenberg, head of development for “Survivor” and other reality shows…and numerous others. The scientists, engineers, and business-people have all been very eager to speak with the kids, who have done a great job engaging them in conversation, networking and collecting business cards, and listening to all the advice the adults have to offer. It’s been an eye-opening experience for all 5 students. Brandon has really gotten into the networking aspect, passing out his e-mail address to many of the presenters and judges. I’ve also seen Kaya and Leon gain a lot of confidence, and they’ve begun to talk with more confidence and enthusiasm about pursuing four-year college degrees.

Tomorrow is the Closing Ceremony and the announcement of this year’s winners, so wish us luck!

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