Students compete at Ames Research Center

April 5, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
On the first weekend in April, more than 100 high school students pitched their high tech ideas to judges and venture capitalists at NASA's Ames Research Center. The annual event commemorates astronaut Pete Conrad by encouraging kids to become entrepreneurs.

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"The actual satellite is going to be a capsule, kind of the size of a large closet or a small room," explained Sam Swan, holding a model of a satellite in his hands as he spoke. "And it'll have all sorts of equipment, from protein crystallization pods to really, whatever the pharmaceutical industry desires to research."

Swan and Lamond Le traveled from Seattle's Aviation High School to pitch their satellite plan to an audience of aerospace professionals at NASA's Ames Research center. The annual event is sponsored by the Conrad Foundation, founded by the widow of the third person to walk on the moon.

Nancy Conrad, is delighted with a certain irony.

"Pete Conrad was a kid who got thrown out of school because he couldn't read and he couldn't spell. And, in fact, the school that threw him out was here today and received an award, which is beautiful!"

This is not a science fair. Students from around the country compete for cash and support to turn their ideas into commercial products.

From San Jose, Latino College Prep brought an array of mirrors to concentrate sunlight onto solar cells. From New York, Herrick's High and Hebrew Academy students propose to generate power by lining car wheels with piezoelectric film that turns pressure into electricity.

From Los Angeles, students at Milken High are building a better space suit. For the first time, someone from China made the finals. Shuai "Jack" Li is developing a solar oven that charges batteries, cooks food and purifies water.

"We clean the water using a very simple way first. Then, we kill the bacteria and kill the bad stuff," he says proudly.

Funding is important, but winning students also get to sign a scroll that will fly on the International Space Station.

About that, Lamond Le says, "I really don't care so much about money, or anything. I guess, not yet."

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