Calling on interns to become inventors

A competition challenges MIT Lincoln Laboratory’s student interns
to explore new ideas.

by Kathryn Lannin| Technical Communications Group

To provide undergraduate and graduate students in its summer internship program with an opportunity to flex their technical skills beyond assigned work, MIT Lincoln Laboratory initiated a program that encourages interns to envision a new technique or device for solving a current problem. Eighteen teams undertook this Intern Innovative Idea Challenge (I3C), willingly devoting out-of-work hours to developing their concepts.

Ian Hill, an intern in the Tactical Defense Systems Group, demonstrates his team’s inventive vest for soldiers during the final presentations of the Intern Innovative Idea Challenge.

"The Intern Innovative Idea Challenge is an investment in creativity and imagination," said Sara James, a technical staff member who was on the founding committee of the I3C. The challenge elicited intriguing ideas: a hologram projection technology, an app that evaluates cognitive fatigue, and an app that displays parking space availability, to name a few.

Raoul Ouedraogo, technical staff in the Laboratory's Space Systems and Technology Division, first proposed the idea of a tournament for summer interns last fall. "The I3 Challenge gives interns the opportunity to come up with their own concepts and form their own teams while leveraging the vast knowledge available at the Laboratory," he said, adding that I3C was designed to offer students an outstanding internship experience that reflects the high standards of technical excellence, collaboration, and innovation at the Laboratory.

"Raoul's enthusiasm was contagious," said Kevin Cohen, assistant head of the Air, Missile, and Maritime Defense Technology Division and a champion of the program. "We saw active participation from staff and leadership across the Laboratory, from designing the program and mentoring teams to teaching seminars and critiquing presentations." The 17-member organizing committee represented every technical division at the Laboratory, as well as the Human Resources Department, Technical Communications group, and Technology Office.

The challenge kicked off in June, when all interns were invited to submit ideas to the Idearator, an online portal that allows registered users to upload proposals and share comments on them. Through the Idearator, employees offered feedback, posed questions, and voted for their favorite ideas. At a preliminary concept review on 8 July, the 12 teams at the top of the Idearator rankings had three minutes each to sell their idea to a judging panel made up of Eric Evans, Director of the Laboratory; Bernadette Johnson, the then Chief Technology Officer; and three division heads—Robert Atkins, Melissa Choi, and Lawrence Candell. The judges questioned the teams about their technologies and chose seven teams to move on to the final presentations. Both presentations were attended by an enthusiastic crowd of Laboratory employees.

At the final presentations on 21 July, employees chose the winner of the competition by casting votes via their cell phones. In third place was V-SAD, an augmented reality windshield display for military vehicles; in second place was A-SUIT, a "smart" military uniform that provides biomonitoring feedback; and in first place was Blast Block, a collar that protects soldiers from traumatic brain injury associated with exposure to an explosive blast.

The Blast Block team, seen here with the organizers of the Intern Innovative Idea Challenge, was voted as the first place winner by Lincoln Laboratory employees.    

Each of the 18 competing teams was paired with an official mentor, who was available to discuss the team's concept and presentation. Participating interns also collaborated with Laboratory staff members that they otherwise would not have met. "We feel we have become more connected with the Laboratory community," said Lisa Pinals, a member of the Blast Block team. One team toured the radar facility at Hanscom Air Force Base; another collaborated with technical artists to develop graphics for their presentation and poster display.

James Wall from the V-SAD team said that developing a technical presentation was one of his most valuable takeaways from the competition: "It was a challenge to concisely present our idea in three or four minutes." He added that participating in the competition made him feel more prepared for working in a technical field, from writing an effective idea proposal to collaborating with a diverse team. I3C participant Benjamin Anderson also appreciated the experience: "Participating in the I3 Challenge encouraged me to go for lofty ideas and not write them off as unrealistic. It gave me an opportunity to embrace the creativity that is so fundamental to Lincoln Laboratory."

Ouedraogo and the organizing committee have already planned to expand the competition. Some of the teams from this year will receive funding next summer to build prototypes of their ideas at the Laboratory. Next summer and in the future, the I3C idea-generation phase and a prototyping phase will run concurrently. The competition succeeded in offering interns a challenging, engaging summer, and it may attract future creative young engineers to the Laboratory's Summer Research Program.

Posted September 2016

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