A panel of expert judges awarded a student-led team from Virginia Western Community College a tie for second place in the 2016 Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC) last week in Washington. The team’s project proposed an innovative way to collect waste apples for production as environmentally friendly biofuel.

Students Cody Djuric, Adam O’Neal, Seth Ramsay and Kari Stanley along with Virginia Western’s Dean of STEM, Amy White, presented a poster and video about their project. The team collaborated with Gwen Ikenberry and Ikenberry Orchards in Daleville, proposing a mechanical collection method of recovering apples that otherwise could not be sold to produce an environmentally-friendly biofuel, allowing more efficient use of U.S. orchards and new economic opportunities for apple producers.

“These students competed on a national stage with other community college students from around the country. They interacted with congressmen, scientists, consultants and policymakers. The personal and academic growth they experienced was exhilarating to watch,” White said. “They left the competition not only with accolades, but more importantly with greater confidence and networking and communication skills.  They built relationships with the other teams and discussed future collaborations, which is the heart of innovation. This has been one of my most rewarding professional endeavors and I am so thankful that Virginia Western supports these student opportunities.”

Forsyth Technical Community College (Winston-Salem, N.C.) was awarded first place and Normandale Community College (Bloomington, Minn.) tied for second.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), in partnership with the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), developed the CCIC competition as a way to foster development of crucial innovation skills among students in one of the nation’s most significant academic sectors. Community colleges play an important role in developing America’s technical workforce, in part by involving groups traditionally underrepresented in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.

“The Community College Innovation Challenge presented these students with real-world questions that the scientific community is working to answer,” said Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF assistant director for Education and Human Resources. “It has been gratifying to see how enthusiastically all of this year’s participants have responded to that challenge. These winning teams are emblematic of the kinds of quality entries we received.”

The 2016 CCIC focused on the Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems (INFEWS) program, an NSF priority that seeks new ways to help society deal with growing resource demands.

“This year’s challenge linked an important and growing area of research with a vital part of the scientific and technical education system,” said Susan Singer, director of NSF’s Division of Undergraduate Education. “Community colleges are strong members of the STEM community, and these CCIC participants demonstrate the kind of innovation and ambition their students have to offer.”

A group of 10 CCIC finalists, who submitted videos describing their proposals, attended a four-day innovation “boot camp” this week, during which they received feedback on their presentations and met with experts on subjects including team-based design, communicating the value of innovation and transitioning research to commercialization. A panel of expert judges selected the winners Thursday: Rathindra DasGupta, a former NSF longtime NSF program director and current innovation and entrepreneurship consultant; Denise Eblen, deputy director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture; Morven McLean, executive director of the Center for Environmental Risk Assessment at the ILSI Research Foundation; Anna Quider, director of federal relations at Northern Illinois University; and Kenneth Walz, director of the Consortium for Education in Renewable Energy Technology.

“AACC congratulates the winners and all the finalist teams participating in this year’s Community College Innovation Challenge,” said Walter G. Bumphus, President and CEO of AACC. “We are so proud to be a part of this important initiative.  The student team members, working alongside their faculty mentors and industry partners, represent the nation’s future leaders in STEM innovation.  They are to be strongly commended for their impressive and inspiring efforts.”

Additionally, finalists were given the opportunity to present their projects to members of Congress and legislative staff during a Capitol Hill presentation Wednesday. Attendants selected Perimeter College at Georgia State University’s project as the “People’s Choice” award, a new category added to CCIC this year.