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Teens Design Neonatal ICU Products for Innovation Class

High school students in Pennsylvania created prototypes for products to help parents and children in neonatal ICUs as part of class that teaches basic electronics, coding and creative problem solving.

Pediatric ICU with ECG monitor on foreground
(TNS) — Facing the intent gaze of four judges, Silas Lashbrook launched his team's presentation with an emotional appeal, describing the experience of parents whose newly delivered infant is immediately taken to a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

"Imagine, instead of holding your child, you had to watch it be carried away in an isolette, unsure whether that child would live the next five minutes, being unable to breathe on their own," Lashbrook, a sophomore, told the panel of experts assembled in the Meadville Area Senior High library. "That is what parents in the NICU have to go through."

Lashbrook's team was one of three from Jill Hyatt's Innovation Class that had a challenge of their own to confront on Thursday: pitching their ideas for products designed to help parents and children who spend time in a neonatal ICU.

The four-person panel evaluating the pitches — more a coaching staff than a "shark tank" — was made up of locals with relevant experience: Nicola Dent Fisher, co-owner of Optical Filters USA LLC; Kyle Astor, an engineering manager with Acutec Precision Aerospace Inc.; Sarah Holt, an Allegheny College staff member who helps to organize the college's annual Zingale Big Idea Competition; and Bailey Kozalla, a senior environmental science major at Allegheny.

The pitches considered by the judges were the result of months of preparation by the various teams. Working with community partners — one a NICU nurse, the other a mother whose young son recently spent 12 weeks in intensive care — the teams have labored since September to develop not only product ideas, but functioning prototypes.

The class, open to students from any grade level, draws its curriculum from Project Invent, a nonprofit that promotes hands-on problem solving by challenging students to create technology that solves real-world problems. Hyatt said that in addition to basic electronics and computer coding, the class emphasizes creative problem solving, teamwork and responding with empathy to the needs of actual people like the nurse and mom that teams interviewed several times.

"I was excited they were able to cue into their needs of the people that we worked with even though it was a topic they're all really unfamiliar with, being high schoolers," Hyatt said moments before the showdown in the library kicked off.

Once the lights were dimmed and the teams launched into their five-minute slideshow presentations, the judges were impressed as well. The teams each drew inspiration from the separation that often results, particularly in the age of the pandemic, when young children wind up in intensive care.

First up was the SnuggaBear. The device resembled an ordinary teddy bear, but several added features were designed to offer more ways to comfort a child separated from parents — a microphone to detect crying, a speaker to play reassuring messages from parents, calming LED lights incorporated into the bear's eyes and nose.

Next came Lima, a heated hand with an embedded speaker, like the SnuggaBear, that could play the parents' voices. The cushioned device was intended to provide a substitute for human contact when babies are separated from parents for medical care.

"With current COVID restrictions, the visitation for NICUs is way down, so the infants can barely ever see their parents," sophomore Zander Hamill said in response to one of several questions the judges asked after the Lima presentation. "This is meant to think that they're actually with their parents all the time so that they feel safe and don't think that they're alone."

The third team proposed the HART — a device for healing, alleviation, relief and togetherness. Resembling a squishy ball, the HART addresses the separation anxiety experienced by babies in a NICU or children separated from parents for virtually any reason, the team explained. More than just a ball, the HART vibrates to simulate a heartbeat — and not just any heartbeat, but that of a parent. In addition, Team HART said, the device could be used outside of an infant context, providing a remembrance of the heartbeat of any absent loved one.

In what judges describe as a virtual photo finish, the HART device proved the winner. The winning team members — junior Sam Engels, sophomores Camden Hall and Wynn Harward, and ninth grader Jayden Headrick — will continue perfecting their pitch and improving their prototype before moving onto the Project Invent national competition, to be held virtually in April.

After an hour spent listening to pitches, grilling the contestants and offering encouraging feedback, Fisher said it was inspiring to see such work happening in Meadville.

"It's so important that we help educate our kids in this way because innovation is one of the keys to building successful businesses and successful solutions in both for-profit and nonprofit (areas) for our communities," she said. "It's not teaching people stuff — it's teaching them how to think, and that's what creates our problem solvers and our innovators."

©2022 The Meadville Tribune (Meadville, Pa.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.