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July 1, 2021

Students create STEM solutions to everyday challenges that benefit society.

L to R: Tara Karaim, Jacqueline Contreras, Ashley "Kat" Hooley Lickteig, Kate Boyer, Jacquelyn White

A team of enterprising students from Johnson County Community College was one of 12 to advance to the finals of the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC), a national competition that concluded in June.

The Challenge was designed to strengthen entrepreneurial thinking among community college students through the development of STEM-based solutions to real-world problems. The competition was sponsored by the American Association of Community Colleges, in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

The CCIC was created in 2015 to broaden community college participation in STEM and innovation, while preparing students for meaningful employment in the high-technology fields that drive our nation’s economy.

Teams in the Challenge consisted of two to four students, a faculty mentor and an outside mentor. Each had to assess their innovation's potential impact, identify its scientific and market feasibility, and determine its societal relevance.

Big Idea, Huge Impact

The JCCC team — called Johnson County Honors Women — included students Kate Boyer, Ashley "Kat" Hooley Lickteig, Jacqueline Contreras, Jacquelyn “Jacqui” White and faculty mentor Tara Karaim, Coordinator of Community-Based Learning.

They developed a novel solution to address accessibility barriers to personal travel for mobility device users, such as those who use wheelchairs. Many rely on the assistance of another person to help them gain access to their device from their vehicle. The team wanted to create a way for these individuals to travel independently.

“The team’s innovation idea was to create a mechanical bench allowing individuals who use mobility aids to get from their driver’s seat to the back of their vehicle to access their device unassisted,” Karaim said.

The team participated in Virtual Innovation Boot Camp June 14-17. Through an online platform, the camp provided professional development, mentoring and coaching designed to build strategic communication and entrepreneurial skills. Teams also received help to advance their innovations in both the private and public sectors. Participants took part in sessions on commercializing ideas, using technology for social applications, communicating with stakeholders and refining a pitch, among others.

Perfecting the Pitch

JCCC’s team worked with Anelisa Lauri, Director of Community Engagement at the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship (NACCE), on their pitch and presentation. Together they created this description of their innovative concept:

"Made of composite recycled plastics with metal structural supports, our bench is a mechanical device powered by solar energy, reducing its energy footprint. A motion sensor triggers when the driver’s door is opened and extends a seat to a disabled person sitting in the driver’s seat of their car. After the person transfers themselves to the seat and buckles in, the controls on the arm allow them to move themselves to the trunk of their car, allowing them to get their device from the rear without the help of another person."

The Boot Camp culminated in a virtual poster session and engagement opportunity with STEM leaders and congressional stakeholders. Teams presented to a panel of industry professionals who determined the first, second and third-place winners. Although the JCCC team did not place among the top three, each participant received a cash prize of $500. The top three teams left with additional scholarship money.

What’s Next?

While the team does not yet have a physical prototype of the bench, they do have sketches of their concept and a solid understanding of how the device will be assembled and powered. They hope to begin building a prototype soon — possibly on the JCCC campus.