Space toys: Building your own corporation after school

Oct. 19, 2006 by Justin Bannister NMSU News Center

Video games, cell phone calls and trips to the mall are the usual things on the minds of middle and high school students once the school day is over, but while those students are instant messaging, others are creating something innovative.

This semester, students in the Innoventure program are designing their own space toys and learning what it takes to build their own companies to make and market the toys. It’s an outreach program designed to get kids interested in college. This is Innoventure’s fifth and most successful year at New Mexico State University.

The program is a partnership between NMSU and New Mexico MESA Inc. MESA stands for mathematics engineering science achievement, and their focus is on getting pre-college students interested in college. This is their second year working with the university on Innoventure.

“We need to get the kids’ attention, sooner rather than later,” said Kevin Boberg, associate dean of the NMSU College of Business. He hopes the program make the difference for some kids in whether or not to continue their education. “We lose so many of them before they get to college; many more never make it through college.”

Toney Begay, executive director of New Mexico MESA Inc., said the organization is “committed to providing enrichment to the future scientists, engineers and those in other careers by incorporating the Innoventure concept into its areas of academic enrichment.”

“We’ve really hit on a formula that’s successful,” said Marie Borchert. She works for NMSU’s Physical Science Laboratory and credits MESA’s large presence in New Mexico schools for Innoventure’s increased popularity.

This year 23 teams from schools around New Mexico are competing. That’s 10 more than last year. Those teams can have three to 10 students, with some schools fielding more than one team.

In the teams, students decide who gets to be the president of their company, as well as their marketing director and the chief financial officer. Borchert believes this kind of team building helps students who aren’t necessarily interested in math or science by giving them a chance to excel in other areas, like business or creative design. “It shows them no matter which field you go into, you need a broad range of skills,” she said.

In the competition, students must design a prototype of a toy that can be used in outer space. “The toys can be anything for anyone, from preschoolers to senior citizens,” said Borchert. “It just needs to be safe to use in zero gravity.”

The students can ask for help from teachers or parents, but ideas must be original and innovative. “They can’t just be a repacking of another idea,” said Borchert. The teams use the Internet to research their ideas.

Plus, there’s a chance the winning toy will actually be tested in a near weightless environment inside NASA’s KC-130J. Nicknamed the “Vomit Comet,” the test airplane simulates weightlessness. The proposal still needs to be accepted by NASA. “It’s something the kids really get excited about,” said Karen Lieberman, southwest regional coordinator of NM MESA.

Last year, students designed products for space commercialization. The winning high school team developed a “space pet carrier.” The winning middle school team designed magnetic boots to wear in zero gravity.

“Corporations are very interested in these kids’ ideas,” said Boberg. “Adults can’t think out of the box. These kids have never even seen the box.”

Mentors also work with the teams after school. The students must learn some technical concepts. They need to know if their idea is going to work, and why.

Students also learn important business concepts. “You may have the greatest mouse trap, but if nobody knows about it, they aren’t going to buy it,” said Borchert.

NMSU graduate students with the Arrowhead Center show the teams how to write a business plan. They also teach them how businesses fund their projects and protect their ideas in the real world.

Working with older students is one of the highlights for the teams. “It really gives the students an opportunity to say, ‘Hey, here’s someone who went to my high school, and now they are getting an MBA,’” said Sara Pirayesh. Pirayesh is a former NMSU student. She now works at the Arrowhead Center.

“There’s nothing in it financially for the Business College; it’s just our mission to get these kids enthusiastic about education,” said Boberg.

The winning team will be selected Jan. 19, 2007, at the Best Western Mesilla Valley Inn on Avenida de Mesilla.

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