Big-money competitions—like the $25-million Virgin Earth Challenge to suck carbon from the atmosphere and the $10-million Progressive Automotive X Prize to build a 100mpg car—are a great way to inspire life-changing technologies. Winning strokes the ego, of course, and eight-figure prize money is also a good lure. But what if you need some innovative ideas, only you don’t have a lot of prize money to throw around? Hand out course credit instead.
College students, long treated as the interns of the R&D world, are coming into their own as designers and innovators, thanks to a series of contests aimed especially at them. “Students are more willing than corporations to try new solutions to difficult problems,” says Frank Falcone, a mechanical engineer at Argonne National Laboratory, a sponsor of the annual EcoCAR Challenge. Unlike prize-driven contests, student contests often offer a few thousand dollars of seed money up front in return for little more than bragging rights or a trophy as the payoff. “But I know I learned more doing this than in my whole undergraduate career,” says Falcone, who competed in Challenge X, a student contest to improve fuel economy in autos. And to graduate knowing that you’ve built a zero-emission vehicle, or developed artificial blood, means that you’ve made better use of your tuition money than that guy down the hall who played beer pong all day. Here, four collegiate contests that ask much and pay little.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.