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Walker students show creative chops at Invention Convention

Elie Hersch’s to-do list is already a mile long, so she’s not sure she’ll be able to squeeze in inventing. But if the Walker Elementary fifth-grader decides to go that route — between becoming the first woman president and qualifying for the Olympics — she’ll probably fare just fine.

Hersch’s snow shovel equipped with a heated handle was one of several dozen inventions on display at Walker on Thursday during the school’s “Invention Convention,” which culminated the fifth-grade unit study on inventing and inventors.

Each student was tasked with thinking up and developing his or her own invention and presenting a working prototype to the public in the school’s gym and library. The convention is the brainchild of Walker fifth-grade teacher Morgan Cottle, who decided to scrap the traditional classroom presentation format five years ago. For many reasons, he said, the convention has proven to be a far more effective finale to the study.

“(The presentations) were like three days long and they did it one time, and those poor kids at the end — everybody else is just listening,” Cottle said. “So in 45 minutes here, everybody probably (presented) eight, 10 times. This format allows them to do it multiple times, and they get direct feedback from people, plenty of practice, and get those jitters out of the way of being in front of people.”

Not that Hersch has any such jitters. She stood before a handful of fourth-grade “judges” in the library and demonstrated with the composure of a seasoned salesperson how her shovel would prevent fingers from freezing. Basically, an “eco-friendly” heating element which is tied to the handle cap “for easy retrieval” is enclosed inside the handle, where its heat causes the handle itself to warm up.

The idea occurred to Hersch after she shoveled the snow off her driveway following last winter’s snow storm.

“I always had to shovel the driveway and it took me like three hours to shovel five feet,” she said.

The shoveling was hard on her fingers. If only there was a snow shovel with a heated handle, she thought. So, she invented one. Of course, those doing the snow shoveling could simply wear gloves. But, Hersch points out, gloves create another problem, one which won’t be a factor for those who use her heated shovel.

“So the problem that it solves really is my hands getting cold,” she said. “But with gloves, my hands slide, so it’s harder to get a firm grip on it. This is a way you can get a firm grip on it.”

The fourth-graders seemed to be impressed with Hersch’s invention, as did the parents and other adults who perused each of the invention booths Thursday. All in all, it was a huge success, but Hersch isn’t ready to abandon her lifelong goals to pursue a life of inventing just yet.

“I have big plans for life already,” she said, “and I’m not quite sure I should add another one.”

Other inventions included a Bluetooth-equipped cat door, a hanging nightstand for bunk-bed users, a “waterizer” that automates Christmas tree-watering and a robot pooper scooper.

The hanging nightstand, invented by Tess Hemmerling, saves people the trouble of climbing all the way off the top bunk in order to grab something that couldn’t be stored up there. Hemmerling sleeps in a bunk bed and became tired of the hassle of late-night climbing. Problem solved. She uses “The Hanging Nightstand” herself and touts its simplicity. The nightstand is mostly fabric, latches on to a standard bunk bed frame and is equipped with two pockets. The prototype held a water bottle. The other pocket, Hemmerling said, could be used to hold a night light or something else about that size. A small paperback would also fit.

Hemmerling said Cottle’s class sparked her creative side.

“He gets us in this mood where you’re like, ‘See a problem, find an invention for it,' ” she said. “So this morning my script got wrinkled, so I was like, ‘Somebody should make a paper-straightener, because it would work.’ I was just like, ‘I should invent that.’”

Aidan Franklin was equally inspired when he invented his cat collar, cat door combination which work in tandem to both aid and keep track of cats as they go in and out of a house.

“I couldn’t really find anything (to invent),” Franklin said, “but then I started to see my cats wanted in and out every five seconds and I thought, we should just get a cat door. But then we would have the problem of raccoons getting in. So I wanted to do something that wouldn’t open until the cat came near.”

A tiny triggering mechanism attached to the cat’s collar is recognized by a sensor in the door, which opens when the collar moves to within a few feet. It also records digitally every exit and entrance, and that movement is then sent instantly to a synced smart phone.

The prototype employed a stuffed kitten to simulate Franklin’s cats — Kabookie and Pip — and worked just as advertised.

“I really did want to do this at my house,” he said. “I think it’s a pretty good idea.”

The robot pooper scooper was also a big hit Thursday, as was a “butter balm” and “bagel balm” dispenser that made use of a chap stick tube.

“I thought of this idea because my mom always hates when she has to pick up a buttery mess,” reads the butter balm info-board. “My invention is geared toward ages 4-97.”

After 26 years teaching in Ashland, the last 10 at Walker, Cottle says he’s no longer surprised by his students’ creativity. They come up with fantastic ideas every year, he said.

“I am thrilled every year at that great combination of critical thinking and creative problem solving, and for the most part I’m very hands-off,” he said. “Most of these, I had no idea what they were doing. I don’t know and I don’t want to know. So they show up today and it’s always just this wonderful surprise of great ideas.”

Most of the students who talked about their invention Thursday said it was less like a school project and more like a fun activity that happens to be required and graded. That, says Cottle, is music to his ears.

“I want them to be excited about problem solving,” he said. “We look at everything that needs to be taught and learn, but if you can teach a kid to think and problem solve you’ve made great gains with them. I’m always thrilled by it.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-776-4469 or jzavala@dailytidings.com.