The excitement was palpable this summer at Chaffey College, where the school’s first Invention, Innovation and Inclusivity (I3) program was taking place.

Funded by a Title III STEM grant, the eight-week summer workshop brought 10 students from different majors together with the mission of creating a product that would solve a real-world problem.  Chaffey was one of just four colleges in the state selected to join the Lemelson-MIT program, which has been encouraging community colleges around the country to promote a creative, multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving. College of the Desert, Modesto Junior College and Sierra College were also selected as pilot colleges for the program.

Participating students ranged in age from 17 year-old high school seniors taking college credits, to those in their mid-forties returning to Chaffey to upskill. The two, five-person teams represented a mix of engineering, art and design, and business backgrounds. “Students chose their own groups and determined what project to work on,” says Mark Padilla, faculty lead for the I3 program along with journalism Professor Michelle Dowd. “By integrating people of different majors, each student is learning from a different perspective. It’s a way to push the boundaries of education, and how cool is it that they get paid to actually invent something?” Payment was essential, adds Padilla, as many of these students are supporting families and paying for their own tuition.

Manuel Carbajal’s group worked on creating a touchless door system for grocery store refrigerators. The group’s research indicated that there is no such system in use at stores anywhere in the country.  They also found statistics showing that, if an average of 300 people touch a single door handle in a day, a virus has the potential to spread to 60% of them. Thus, a door that can be opened with the wave of a hand has public health benefits.

“The engineers of our group were the technicians, and it was so interesting to sit back and watch how they solve problems, how they know which system can fix each particular issue,” recalls Carbajal, an adult student who returned to school to study art and design. His role in the project involved taking their concepts, creating graphics, and preparing a visual presentation to “sell” the system to professors. Professor Dowd followed the progress of the two teams this summer and worked with journalism interns to create a documentary, The Spirit of Invention

“Manuel was an integral part of the team and did a fabulous job presenting,” says Padilla. “The cross collaboration between different majors is the beauty of the I3 project – each person in the group focuses on his or her strengths while watching how the others approach the problem. When that happens, the learning curve goes through the roof.” 

Xochitl Escamilla agrees. “I was the oldest in my group, and learned so much from the youngest, like mechanics and programming and how to use a 3D printer,” she says.  An adult student, Escamilla applied and was accepted to the I3 program after finishing her degree in hospitality management. Her team ultimately created a vibrating proximity device that would warn the wearer if someone were within six feet. 

“We set out to make a safety device, but in talking to people and doing surveys we found out that members of the visual and hearing impaired community could use it, too,” says Escamilla. Her background in hospitality proved a plus, as she was the group member who took on the role of building a network, taking surveys, and talking to law enforcement about the group’s ideas.  

“From my teammates, I learned computer skills. From the course, I learned about patents and processes and how to make things happen,” says Escamilla. “Courses like this one should be standard at all community colleges.”

Both teams have discussed continuing to work on their products with the possibility of taking them to market. “If they do, they’ll have to push the envelope, researching patents and market potential,” says Padilla, who hopes to have the funding to continue the I3 program next year.