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GEHS Engineers Win MIT Grant with Caver Mapping Idea

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A Greenbrier East engineering team has won a $10,000 grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The funds are meant to help students develop new technologies, new patents, and new opportunities. Only eight of the over 100 high school teams that applied took home a grant award. For Greenbrier East, the winning idea would help those inside of caves, a prominent feature of the Greenbrier Valley landscape.

“We have to work out how we’re going to program it,” explained Jake McGilvary, one of the students on the team. “The idea, in general, is a radio transponder of sorts that would allow cavers to find their way in and out of caves. Even if they did get lost or the lights went out, if they didn’t have a light with them, then they’d be able to find their way out.”

The transponders would serve as reference points, allowing for the creation of a loose 3D map, allowing the cavers themselves to know approximately where they are inside.

“Basically, the spelunkers would have a responder that they wear. … It would ping off of the setup … so that we can track where they had been and their last locations,” said Olivia Warfield, another involved student.

“It can be used for search and rescue, but it can also be used if you just want to go caving on a weekend you had this with you, you can find your way in and out of the cave like nothing,” McGilvary said.

“Basically, in the area, we’ve had a lot of cavers that have just gone lost in the caves,” Olivia Warfield said. “Hearing their stories, we just … created an idea on how to save them or prevent these people from getting lost any longer.”

The student engineering team includes Evan Vaughan and Kendra Culyer (kneeling) Evan Vogelsong, Gabe Dowdy, Delaney Hamrick, Olivia Warfield, Amber Conley, Cole Snyder, Kevin Warfield (first row), Ian Morrison, Ian Hamilton, Cam Little, Abby Warfield, Nevaeh Wooding (second row) Jake McGilvay, Sam Totten, and Gabe Coleman (top row).

Greenbrier East Engineering Instructor Kevin Warfield also had connections to the local caving community in Greenbrier County, helping solidify what the prototype would do.

“We remembered when the students were trapped in a cave in Singapore,” Warfield said. “The students had an idea and I reached out to a former student who was a spelunker. He got us in touch with some spelunkers in Greenbrier County – they kind of confirmed that this was a problem that needed to be solved. The students had been working on potential ideas to prototype. We hope to, now that the grant has been awarded, start developing our design and build a working prototype.”

The grant comes through the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, through their Lemelson-MIT program. According to their website, the goal of the program is to “prepare the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs. Our work focuses on the expansion of opportunities for people to learn ways inventors find and solve problems that matter to improve lives. Our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion aims to remedy historic inequities among those who develop inventions, protect their intellectual property and commercialize their creations.”

Warfield explained the odds the team managed to overcome to get the grant.

“There were over 100 schools that applied for these grants. There were 27 finalists named in June. Then they named the eight schools that won today. … The students started this project back in March or April, we started brainstorming ideas, and we submitted the initial grant application in April. In June, we found out we were a finalist. At that point, the students had to complete the rest of the grant application, film a video. We submitted the application, early September. Today, they announced the eight schools that were winners and Greenbrier East was awarded a $10,000 grant.”

Despite the heavy odds, the students felt they had a decent chance at getting the $10,000 prize.

“We definitely thought we had a chance,” Olivia Warfield said. “I think we have a really strong group to work with.”

This could be due to Greenbrier East’s track record in the MIT program—this is not actually the first time an East team has won the grant.

“We had a team of students in the 2016-2017 school year, they invented a cardboard building material, and they went to Boston in June of 2017 to present their invention,” Kevin Warfield explained. “We got it to the point where you could nail it, saw it, paint it. It was fireproof and bugproof. We couldn’t get it to waterproof because everything we tried to waterproof it with was flammable.”

Next, the class will prepare for an event in Cambridge, where the transponder idea will be presented.

“They have to run a tradeshow booth for four hours in the afternoon with the general public. It’s a pretty hard day,” Warfield said. “Then for the next two or three days, MIT just treats them like kings. They feed them great, have video game trucks, ice cream trucks, you know, they really reward the kids for all their hard work.”

The local caving community will also stay involved as the project moves forward. Ed Swepston, a caver for over 50 years, helped the team connect to the right caves to prototype the invention in.

“Kevin, through someone else that knew me, called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re wanting to do something in caves, would you be willing to show us around in some caves?’ I said yes,” explained Ed. “We met, and they just wanted a cave to come in and make a video, which they sent to MIT. We made it in this cave. Steve Silverberg, who owns Lost World Caverns, … is phenomenal as far as participating in anything that helps the community. [He said] bring them in. We came in … and they videoed through the cave and did a little talk here and there, and said that all to MIT.”

The device is planned for testing in Lost World Caverns, but when it is operational, the 3D mapping will be placed in a less-accessible place.

“They’re going to get the actual prototypes and test them in here to see if they will work at all,” Ed continued. “Once that succeeds, then I’m going to take him into a wild cave with no lights, one that very few people ever go in, and then we’re gonna set up a little rescue course. … My goal was mostly to get them in a cave, make sure they don’t get hurt going in it. … [The location] is known in the caving community, the non caving community has no idea probably, but it’s up near Frankford. The landowners there are very nice people and they graciously allowed us to do that.”

Kevin Warfield celebrated the student’s work and hopes to continue with the Greenbrier East program for the years to come.

“I’m really proud of the students and all the work they’ve put in coming off of a hard, difficult school year last year. This is a nice way to get back into some normalcy. I like these types of projects, invention education is really important to me. It’s like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where the students start out with a goal and they have to work their way through the challenges and changes that come at them through the process. … We don’t know if the cure for cancer is set out in eighth- or ninth-grade classroom somewhere and a student doesn’t have a platform to work his idea out. I try to promote invention education. It empowers the kids and it might lead to worldwide changes.”

Jake McGilvary and Olivia Warfield in Lost World Caverns

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