HARTSELLE — Six teams of Hartselle High students in the school’s engineering academy created companies and products to solve what they identified as “real-world problems” and made marketing pitches to a panel of educators on Tuesday.

They introduced products and business plans related to everything from “vape detectors” that will help school administrators identify when students are vaping in bathrooms to lightweight “auto goggles” with night-vision capability that can be used by police officers and soldiers.

The ultimate goal of the event is to expose students through project-based learning to advanced manufacturing opportunities in the Decatur area, said Courtney Taylor, regional director of workforce and economic development for the Alabama Community College System.

“We want them to push beyond where the current world is when they design products,” she said.

The program — formed by Boeing and Nextflex in the spring and called FlexFactor — is patterned after the reality television series Shark Tank where a panel of investors called sharks decide whether to invest in proposed businesses or products.

For six weeks, Hartselle students worked in small teams to identify a real-world problem, conceptualize a hardware device to address the problem, identify a target market for the product, and engage in customer discovery research, teacher Elisa Harris said.

“It’s been challenging,” she said, adding that most of the students are ninth graders.

A panel, consisting of administrators with Hartselle City Schools and instructors at Calhoun Community College, listened and questioned students for almost an hour.

“This is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” student Ashton Evans said about trying to convince the four-member panel that his team’s product — “Vape Detect” — was worth their investment.

He and classmates Emily Doshier, Sophia Hampton, Andrew Simmons and Laura Halverson talked for two weeks before deciding on their product.

During their presentation, the team members said they were aware of students using electronic cigarettes in bathrooms at school. They talked about the dangers of vaping and said their small, flexible detection device would help administrators detect smoke from vaping through an app.

Former Hartselle High Principal Jeff Hyche, now the system’s career tech instructional planner, questioned the team members about obstacles they faced when designing the product.

“It was a challenge trying to integrate it into the school so students can’t detect it,” Hampton said.

The initial cost of the device was $999, but Simmons said they changed their business model to lower the cost to $250 so that “every school district could afford our product.”

After their research showed that about 1 million people get hurt annually while exercising, a team consisting of Addison Mote, Gentry Nelson, Jakob Lawrence and Jeagon Barnett designed a “muscle exercise monitor” that will identify what muscles are being used and whether they have been properly stretched.

Another team developed a flex monitor that will track how rehabilitated animals are doing when they are returned to the wild.

Sarah Bowling said they designed a patch because tracking devices currently on the market are bulky and can be lost if an animal brushes against a tree.

“Our product is like a Band-Aid,” she said.

“Why this product?” Taylor asked.

“Because it’s something different,” Bowling said, adding that the group wanted “something totally different than what’s on the market today.”

The panel also heard from a team that designed an “eagle-eye identification” patch that would be implanted in clothes and replace current work badges they said are often stolen or lost.

In another health-related product, Samuel Hall, Cayden Balch, Jameyson Waits and Jacob Bolding designed what they called a “wearable health pad” that will record vitals and allow them to be sent directly to a doctor.

The students were questioned about how their product would compete with Fitbit.

“A Fitbit is not flexible and doesn’t measure blood oxygen rate,” Bolding said.

Hartselle City Superintendent Dee Dee Jones was not on the panel, but attended all the presentations and questioned the team about the goggles costing a more than $1,000 per pair.

“Seems like an expensive pair of glasses,” she said.

The team explained that the current cost of night-vision goggles similar to the ones they designed is between $3,000 and $4,000 per pair.

Taylor said Hartselle City is the second school system in north Alabama to participate in the FlexFactor program, which is integrated into an existing classroom and uses a student-led learning approach to expose students to advanced technologies, business models, and the education and career pathways leading into the advanced manufacturing sector.

“It’s been a great experience,” Evans said.

Before taking the class, he said he didn’t realize the amount of time required to develop and market a product.

— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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