When students from Sells Middle School in Dublin, Ohio head off to high school next year, they'll potentially take something with them—a U.S. patent.
Students from that school and the Shelton Public School District in Connecticut tied for first place in the FIRST Lego League Global Innovation Challenge for their food safety innovations.
Many of them aren't even teenagers yet, but their inventions could cause big changes—the Connecticut team designed a "Smart Sticker" that turns from green to red if a food container isn't properly refrigerated, while the Ohio team created an erasable barcode that disappears if meat is stored at temperatures above 40 degrees.
For their efforts, both teams will receive funding to help them through the patent process and then additional funding to help turn their ideas into a marketable product. The contest is an offshoot of the popular high school FIRST Robotics competition for younger students. Leaders of the program said they decided to help students patent their ideas after the students themselves showed interest.
"They had a problem and decided, we're going to solve this by having a real world product we think is patentable," says Jon Dudas, president of FIRST and former director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. "We should have thought of that ourselves, of course, but on their own, they decided that they didn't want to stop with just a project."
So for the past two years, the challenge has tasked students around the world between the ages of 9 and 16 with innovating in a certain field. This year, it was food safety. Last year, it was transportation safety. Last year's winners designed a steering wheel that detected when a driver was texting while driving—the design got the attention of President Obama and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, according to Dudas.
"Companies have told us that they want to develop these inventions, to give these students a licensing deal and invest their money like they do for any other inventor," Dudas says.
Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST and inventor of the Segway, says the challenge is a way to help foster culture change in America.
"With sports, they don't start with high school football and basketball—there needs to be a little league, there needs to be t-ball," he says. "Well we've got Jr. FIRST Lego League, we've got the Lego League, the Tech Challenge, all with the trappings of sports that causes younger kids to say 'I want to do that.'"
Like the high school robotics competition, which has the feel of a sporting event, every competition Kamen devises is designed to make students feel celebrated like sports or movie stars, to turn science into sport.
"We have big celebrations, the recognitions, cheerleading, political leaders who invite them to the White House," he says. "You have to do the things that makes sports and entertainment bigger than life" and apply them to science.
Dudas says that even if these students' patents don't work out, they've likely got a bright future ahead of them—maybe a brighter future than LeBron James or Brad Pitt.
"The very best basketball players are making tens of millions of dollars a year, maybe even 100 million," he says. "Well the very best technologists are making billions and billions of dollars."
Jason Koebler is a science and technology reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org