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Alaska Panhandle students dominate at international idea contest

Jerzy Shedlock

The Arctic Innovation Competition -- dubbed Alaska’s original idea contest -- draws entrants from around the world but a handful of creative students from a remote Alaska island have matched the best of such populous countries as Indonesia and Egypt. The students hail from a small school district on Prince of Wales Island, which is injecting new ideas into rural education.

University of Alaska Fairbanks business administration Professor Dr. Ping Lan created the international competition in 2008. Ultimately, Lan wants to establish an “innovation institute,” so competitors’ ideas can become commercialized products.

Five students from the Southeast Island School District topped their peers during the preliminary rounds of the competition. The district serves the fourth largest island in the country located in the heart of the temperate rainforest that defines most of the Inside Passage and northwest coast of British Columbia.

The school district recently shifted to a four-day school week -- many of its schools have no more than 10 students, the minimum required to receive state funding. The five competing islanders are from Thorne Bay School, one of the larger schools in the district with about 100 students.

Among the submissions:

• The team of Mark Gunkel, Hannah Gunkel, Jared Cook and Meghan Cook created the “Spot on Bow Sight” for the open division. A distance compensating bow which eliminates a shooter’s need to estimate the distance to a target.

• Another archery-related innovation, Nathaniel Cook came up with heart monitoring shooting glasses. A heart monitor stuck to the temple or chest relays a dim LED light that pulses with every heartbeat on the glass covering the shooter’s non-dominant eye.

• Garrick Oberndorfer concocted an adjustable keel leveler. The leveler acts as a boat-balancing system that should help vessels easily cut through water when traveling with a heavy load or into wind.

• And Luther Jenson whipped up some removable felt soles, which can be attached and detached to footwear for “decontamination of an invasive freshwater organism.”

Amy Jenson, a 15-year-old sophomore at Thorne Bay, entered her innovation in the open division. The division has no age restriction, and the winner takes home $10,000. “When I submitted my idea, I wanted it to be worth more. I didn’t think I would make the top-20, but I believed in my idea.”

A winner of the junior division gets $500, the price of a ticket to Fairbanks from Southeast. Luckily, the school chipped in to pay for the kids, all of whom fought their way to the top-20. Amy and another team of four students are competing in the open division; three students are in the junior division.

Jenson’s entry is a pair of headphones that ducks the volume under loud, external sounds, such as barking dogs and honking cars. Basically, it is two pieces of equipment: a mic that picks up the sounds and the headphones. The invention is the opposite of noise cancelling headphones. It is a noise amplifier, she said.

“It’s a big debate between runners and bikers, whether or not to listen to music while you do so,” Jenson said. “With the headphones, it makes it much safer.”

If she wins the big prize, Jenson hopes to use the money to organize a mission trip through her church.

The finals take place this Friday at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The Artic Innovation Competition website updates its page regularly with the progress of the competition.

Email Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com or follow him on Twitter at @jerzyms.