Farmington High School students named 'Conrad Innovators' in global contest

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Throughout an unusual academic year, a group of Farmington High School students have balanced their studies with an eye on invention. 

The youths joined the Conrad Challenge, an annual competition that draws teens from around the world to create products or services aimed at addressing complex challenges in areas such as aviation, cyber-technology and the environment.

Some 20 Farmington juniors and seniors recently learned they had advanced in the contest and earned the “Conrad Innovator” distinction. Now they prepare for chances to win scholarships and more at a virtual summit this spring, Farmington Public Schools officials announced last week.

An image from part of the presentation for Stephanie Lu's team project in the competition.

Succeeding this far is a boon for the budding professionals, said Nina Merget, who teaches marketing at the school and was one of the main coordinators.

“Students don’t often get to compete at a global level, and it gives them a way to build their resumés and experiences to enhance their future careers,” she said.

This was the first time Farmington participated in the contest led by the Conrad Foundation, which honors the legacy of Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad.

Christine Trent, who teaches engineering at the school, learned of the effort last year through a Facebook group for other educators and asked Merget about joining forces to form teams with students in their respective classes.

The Conrad Challenge gathers international participants ages 13-18 to cluster in teams of between two and five. In the first round, they research global and local challenges in a chosen category, devise a possible solution, then complete a detailed “investor pitch.” 

The second round involved developing and submitting a business plan by early January outlining the teams' idea as well as strategies on introducing their product or service, including a graphic conceptualization or prototype, according to the website.

The top teams in each category advance to the final round: a summit where they present before a judging panel.

More than 700 teams registered for the challenge and 448 advanced to the second round. Finalists for the summit were expected to be announced Feb. 19, officials said on the website.

The Farmington students, who had virtual classes early in the school year, started their teams in the fall and mapped out time to work on projects with teammates.

Stephanie Lu, a senior, juggled Google Meet sessions and group texts with her companions to plot rolling out a sustainable first aid kit geared toward reducing ocean waste.

Though working remotely was unusual, the 17-year-old relished researching items such as bamboo bandages then comparing notes and brainstorming with her teammates, which she saw as the perfect preparation for the future.

“I want to go into business, so this was really nice working with a bunch of other people to come up with ideas,” Lu said. “It made you think a lot more and be able to use a lot of critical thinking skills.”

Joining the competition helped the teens preview what’s needed for entrepreneurship and related fields, Trent said. “We thought this was a real-world type project because they had to work in groups like they were in different departments.”

The initiative was inspiring for Parker Buszka, another senior who led a team with two other students in the aerospace/aviation category. Through a flurry of texting and sharing documents, the trio designed a high capacity helicopter with a detachable pod.

The teen, who hopes to pursue a computer science career, was excited to sketch a product while merging some of his interests.

“The more we developed concepts, the more I was like: this could be a real, legitimate product and a good innovative business,” he said.