MURFREESBORO — Best snow day ever? Ask 200-plus young Midstate innovators who spent their morning at MTSU's 23rd annual Invention Convention Feb. 26 for their top four reasons:
- They were out of school for snow. Again.
- They made presentations, in front of judges, and demonstrated the special inventions they worked on for months. And no one threw up.
- Moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, cousins, neighbors and teachers were cheering and clapping and taking photos and telling them how smart they are.
- They were in the same room with a real live NASA shuttle astronaut and got to hear him speak. And no one threw up.
By the time the trophies, ribbons and other awards had been distributed among the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders, the Invention Convention’s unexpected Best Snow Day Ever was clearly a winner for everyone.
"All of you have a brain that's just as good as mine, and what you do with it is going to measure where you're going to go," said Capt. Robert L. "Hoot" Gibson, an engineer and retired U.S. Navy aviator who flew five NASA space-shuttle missions and is a test pilot and a regular competitor at the annual Reno Air Races.
The young inventors to whom Gibson spoke were public- and private-school students in Coffee, DeKalb, Franklin, Robertson, Rutherford, Sumner and Wilson counties. More than 460 participants with 265 inventions had planned to attend this year; about half of them made it.
Each year, Invention Convention participants create and present inventions from one of two categories: "Games" and "Make Life Easier." Their innovations often are games related to their studies or items to simplify their household chores.
This year, their teachers also had to be innovative — more so than usual — to get the students and their inventions to MTSU. Many teachers briefly opened their snow-closed classrooms to allow students to pick up their inventions and travel with parents to the competition. Other teachers gathered up all the inventions and brought them to their creators on campus.
The young inventors also receive a special gift each year of an everyday object that’s actually a unique invention. The 2015 item was a USB car charger in bright MTSU blue and, of course, a rocket shape in honor of their high-flying guest speaker.
Displaying the iconic photo he shot of fellow astronaut Bruce McCandless II making the first untethered free flight in space during the 1984 Challenger mission, Gibson told the crowd in MTSU's Student Union that the Manned Maneuvering Unit — McCandless' rocket backpack — was an invention just like theirs.
"He used it to fly pretty far away from the space shuttle, and I was a little bit jealous looking out that window,” Gibson said with a smile. “I got to fly the space shuttle as a pilot astronaut, which was great, but looking out that window … wow. What is he seeing underneath his feet, 185 miles down below?"
"EARTH!" the young inventors shouted.
"Yes, and what a spectacular view he had," Gibson said, going on to explain his command missions on the Columbia, Atlantis and Endeavor shuttles.
Gibson and his wife, fellow shuttle astronaut and Murfreesboro native Dr. Rhea Seddon, will become the first married couple in the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame when Seddon is inducted in May.
Arthur Hawkins of Lebanon, Tennessee, a fourth-grader from Coles Ferry Elementary School, bravely made the first inquiry during a brief question-and-answer session, asking Gibson, "How fast IS the speed of sound?"
"Well, 760 miles per hour is Mach 1, so that would mean about 1,500 miles per hour is Mach 2," Gibson said. "The space shuttle flies at the speed of sound, so that means it goes about 17,000 miles per hour."
Another questioner briefly stumped Gibson. "What Mach number equals the speed of light, sir?" the boy said.
Gibson thought, grinned, thought again, and said, "I don't know how to compute that quickly." He did a bit of mental math, then said, to applause, "Maybe Mach 3,000?"
Hawkins and a classmate, Cayden Cravener, had already done their own computations for their Invention Convention presentation, called "Magno Shoes."
"Our project, the Magno Shoes, puts magnets on the straps of your tennis shoes instead of Velcro," Cravener said.
"It's so you don't have to hear that horrible sound of Velcro," Hawkins added, grimacing and demonstrating the distinctive crunchy ripping noise, "and you don't have to drive all the way to the store and back to get new Velcro for your shoes, or buy new shoes, because it wears out fast."
Hawkins, a third-generation innovator, was joined at this year's Invention Convention by his brothers, their mother, Peggy Hawkins, and their maternal grandparents for the Invention Convention.
Peggy Hawkins participated as a youngster in the "Future Problem Solving Program" competitions, which encourages young students around the world to "engage in creative problem solving.”
"Both my older boys have been involved in the Invention Convention," she said. "They really enjoy it."
Another Coles Ferry classmate, Gracie Turner, created the "2-n-1," a reversible everyday and party dress, also in the "Make Life Easier" category.
"I was talking about it with my grandmother, and we didn't want to have to spend extra money on a separate dress you might only wear once in a while or never again," Turner explained, demonstrating by pulling a brightly polka-dotted summer dress over her head, then turning it inside out to show off silvery spangled material.
"You can wear this as a regular summer dress anytime," she continued, "and if you're going to a party after school or after work or something, you just change and you're ready to go."
A smiling Turner took home a fourth-grade Individual Champion Award for her work, earning praise from the convention judges for her creativity and ingenuity.
MTSU’s Invention Convention is the brainchild of elementary education professor Dr. Tracey Huddleston. She began the program in 1993 in tribute to her mother, a longtime fifth-grade teacher who conducted "Invention Convention"-type events at her school.
State Farm Insurance is the longtime local sponsor of the annual Invention Convention.
"I am so proud of all of y'all," Huddleston told the convention participants, beaming from the Student Union stage. "What you have brought with you today did not exist three months ago. Can you believe that?"
"Your inventions, however small and however humble you think they are, often lead to very great things," Gibson added. "Your brains will take you wherever you want them to take you."
You can see a list of the 2015 Invention Convention winners at http://ow.ly/JHJuq.