Armed with ideas, ingenuity, and enthusiasm, several dozen students from a variety of disciplines gathered in April at Texas A&M's Engineering Innovation Center for 48 hours of collaboration and invention. Aggies Invent is an intensive design experience that promotes innovation, creativity, and communication. Maxim, Banfield Pet Hospital, and the university's College of Veterinary Medicine sponsored the April event, so Maxim technical experts were along for the ride.
"It's about teamwork—developing business plans, formulating an idea, and driving it to the product stage," said Devin Cole, a Maxim senior account executive and Texas A&M graduate who was attending his first Aggies Invent. Team chemistry was, indeed, critical as students didn't know who they'd be teamed up with until the event started. So, a business student could be paired with someone from the engineering school, a chemistry major, and someone studying veterinary medicine, for example. "They all had to figure it out," Cole said.
The April Aggies Invent, the university’s 16th such event, was centered around problem statements from the College of Veterinary Medicine. On the first day of the event, students were placed in teams and spent time getting to know each other and brainstorming ways to solve the problem they selected. By the next day, the students were busy creating their prototypes. The last day was primarily for presentations of their project to a panel of judges. Like any real-world business project, there were status reports, meetings, deadlines, and plenty of documentation to manage. Through the process, students learn about the skills needed to succeed in business. There were also cash awards for the top three finishers. "Aggies Invent is as much like their first job as I can possibly make it in 48 hours," noted Rodney Boehm, director of Aggies Invent and professor of practice at the university. He added that the teams that perform the best are those with students from diverse educational backgrounds.
"Think about what these kids are doing—they’re motivated to spend their entire weekend working on this project for personal betterment," said Cole, impressed with the students' work ethic and collaboration. He noted that one student he met decided to change his major from civil engineering to computer engineering after participating in the event.
Brian Vasquez, executive director of applications for Maxim's Micros & Security Business Unit, also attended the event. He noted, "It's always a lot of fun mentoring engineering students and helping them solve problems. It's also fun to show them new tools and tricks that they haven't learned yet in school but that are common in industry."
The campus's Engineering Innovation Center, the students' workplace during the 48-hour event, is a 20,000-square-foot rapid prototyping lab equipped with multiple 3D printers, table saws, a milling machine, a circuit board machine, and other equipment. If students needed additional supplies, whether it was duct tape or even a dog, a staffer would procure it for them. (Yes, they did bring in a dog for one team's canine fitness tracker application.) "Because it was a weekend hackathon, there was no time to order components. So you had to further improvise and be extra creative to work with sensors and tools that you did have on hand," said Vasquez.
The winning projects were:
- A cat-tracking device using various sensors to assess feline urinary behavior to uncover early warning signs of disease
- An enhanced ID tagging microchip with biometric sensors for dogs, featuring capabilities like GPS, water intake monitoring, and heart-rate tracking
- Easily produced, inexpensive 3D models of animal organs that veterinary students can use to practice performing complicated and risky procedures
Some Aggies Invent winners move on to higher levels of competition and continue to develop their projects. Four provisional patents have been filed thus far through the course of the event's history, noted Boehm. After witnessing the creative ideas of a new generation of inventors, Cole noted, "We may have driverless cars, but we haven't even approached the cool stuff yet." Added Vasquez: "It was neat to hear different ways to solve problems because the solutions went beyond engineering."
Boehm noted that having industry support contributes to the success of Aggies Invent. "The students constantly tell us that the student/mentor interaction is one of the most important things they get out of a weekend," he noted. "When they have the opportunity to work with mentors, mentors can get them unstuck, keep them from going down blind alleys, and provide them with guidance and perspective."