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Release: April 2, 2002

(Photo: The Belin-Blank Center at the University of Iowa received almost 700 entries in its contest to design the Invent Iowa 2002 logo, which will go on T-shirts that will be given to all the participants. Rather than select a single drawing, a designer combined pieces from various drawings to create a single graphic that spells out Invent Iowa.)

Invent Iowa brings aspiring Edisons to UI campus April 13

Click here for high resolution graphic

"Shoppers, are you tired of lugging all those plastic bags loaded with groceries from the store to your car? Not only is it awkward, but let's face it, the weight of those bags on your fingers and knuckles can be downright painful!

"That's why there's Hurt Me Not Grocery Bag Hook! With this ergonomically designed device, there's just one handle to hold -- the bags hang from several super-durable hooks attached to the side of the unit.

"Remember: Hurt Me Not Grocery Bag Hook. It's 'handy,' and it's available in stores everywhere!"

Well, not just yet. But this invention by Cedar Rapids fifth-grader Alex Taylor of Erskine Elementary School -- and many more by about 350 Iowa students in grades three through 12 -- can be seen Saturday, April 13 when the University of Iowa hosts the 15th annual Invent Iowa invention convention. Sponsored by the Connie Belin and Jacqueline N. Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development and the UI and Iowa State Colleges of Engineering, the event will take place in the Iowa Memorial Union with evaluations from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and a public viewing session from 12:30 to 3 p.m. Recognition ceremonies are scheduled for 2 p.m. and 3:15 p.m.

Prevalent among this year's entries are inventions for disabled people, patriotic inventions and a host of prototypes for gadgets and gizmos with variations on the name "EZ" and "Handy," all promising to make life easier and, well, handier.

"It is not unusual for students in Invent Iowa to identify problems that perplex even adults," said Clar M. Baldus, Ph.D., state coordinator of Invent Iowa, as well as administrator of the Belin-Blank Center's Rural Schools Programs and Inventiveness Programs. "Invent Iowa participants create the most amazing inventions that are often very altruistic in nature. At the state Invention Convention young inventors have a great time exhibiting their inventions and participating in hands-on inventing and engineering activities. More importantly, the Invention Convention gives inventors an opportunity to share their positive talents with the larger community."

The convention, which alternates between the UI and Iowa State campuses each year, can boast some innovations as well this year. For the first time the event will involve international participants, including several students from India. Also the UI and Iowa State Colleges of Engineering are offering $1,000 scholarships toward tuition at either school for the two high school students with the highest-rated inventions, a move lauded by Invent Iowa organizers since the number of high school participants has risen to eight students this year. Those colleges are also offering two $500 scholarships to students in third through eighth grade whose projects are judged to be the best. These are in addition to $300 in tuition provided for each of the past several years by the UI's John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center for one high school student to attend its summer entrepreneurship camp.

Invent Iowa participants, selected from among students who take part in smaller invention conventions throughout the year, need more than just a good idea to make it to the statewide evaluation. They are expected to develop inventions or innovations that generally meet the requirements for a patent in the United States. In other words, they must be "new, useful and non-obvious." To make the experience more meaningful, students are encouraged to keep journals chronicling their inventions from concept to completion.

In many cases, like Alex Taylor's, ideas for inventions spring from discussions with parents, siblings, teachers and friends who complain about some inconvenience. In many cases, though, the students are inspired simply by looking around the world in which they live.

The events of Sept. 11 moved Johnston sixth-grader Andrew Heki, who is home-schooled, to develop the Half-Staff Flag. Andrew said that after attending a prayer service for the victims of the attacks and hearing President Bush urge Americans to fly their flags at half-staff, he realized the small handheld flags were fixed in place. So he mounted a flag on a string that ran through a hollow tube and could be pulled to raise or lower the Stars and Stripes.

Molly Clevenger and Hannah Owens, fourth-graders at Treynor Elementary School, came up with a way to fight terrorist threats head-on with their Anti-Anthrax Letter Opening Box.

"We decided to choose a national problem over a personal problem," they wrote in their Invent Iowa application.

The box is constructed of a gallon ice cream container with a hole on each side to access rubber gloves glued to the inside for contamination-free handling of a suspicious letter. With her hands in the gloves the user would spray the envelope with a mixture of "bleach, alcohol and perfume" to neutralize the anthrax and then carefully open it and extract the letter.

"We also recommend wearing a mask over your mouth to help prevent inhalation of the bacteria on a suspected envelope," the pair wisely suggests.

At least half a dozen students developed products to make life better for people with physical disabilities.

Clair McNamara, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph's Elementary School in Earlville, devised a Pillow Alarm for hearing-impaired people. The device uses a timer and a vibrator sewn into the pillow. Unlike specialized devices such as doorbells and phones that use lights to alert the user, who is presumably awake to see them, the Pillow Alarm gently shakes the sleeping person awake at a designated time.

Brad Duckstein and co-inventor Alyson Dykstra, 10th-graders at PCM High School in Monroe, designed Movin' On Down Cabinets that raise or lower a cupboard with the touch of the button so people in wheelchairs can access them more easily. And fellow PCM High 10th-grader Emily Davis came up with the Handy Handicap Helper, a set of mechanized pincers that help physically disabled people pick things up off the floor.

Of course, what's the point of an invention if it doesn't ease the burden of modern living in some way? Clearly this was on the minds of the inventors of such time-saving gadgets as the Easy-Pull Mailbox (a drawer slides out of the box so you don't have to reach in to get the mail), the EZ Cover (a plastic sheet that fits over a recycling bin to keep items from spilling out), E-Z Squeeze PB (the PB stands for peanut butter) and the EZ Cleanin' Cage (a device for aiding in the cleaning of hamster cages).

You also have to hand it to the inventors of the Handy Shovel (a shovel with depth measurement on the handle to aid in planting trees or flowers), the Handy-Dandy Flashlight (allows you to use any size or kind of battery), the Handy Dandy All In One Stitchery Holder (a tray for holding stitching tools and materials) and the Randi Dandi Handi Hangers (each bearing a pouch for holding accessories and printed with the day of the week).

Then there's the Tooth Fairy Organizer that, despite what one might assume, is not for collecting wood sprites. The organizer, created by fourth-grader Katie Kinley of St. Albert Elementary School in Council Bluffs, is a hinged wooden box shaped like dentures where baby teeth can be stored as they fall out, one by one.

More information about Invent Iowa is available at the Belin-Blank Web site at