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Posted on Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

4 Skyline High School engineering students win Young Innovators Competition

By Danielle Arndt


Skyline High School seniors, from left, Vaughan Epperson, Swagat Tripathy, Densu Dixon and Andrew Burns pose for a photo in the engineering lab at the school. The seniors, in teams of two, took first place in their respective categories in the 2012 Young Innovators Competition.

Melanie Maxwell |

Four Skyline High School seniors won first place in a statewide youth entrepreneurship competition.

The two pairs of students developed concepts, business plans and now are working on the prototypes for a water purification system using solar energy and a sonar device to help the blind navigate to be named 2012 Young Innovators.

Andrew Burns and Densu Dixon won $1,000 in the new or improved product or service category for their “HydroPod” concept. Vaughan Epperson and Swagat Tripathy took first in the new social solution or enterprise category, which also earned them a $1,000 prize, for their sonar project.

In addition to the cash prize, the students will receive up to 12 months of support and guidance from the foundation behind the Young Innovators Competition, the Prima Civitas Foundation and its Moving Ideas to Market initiative. The initiative is funded by a grant from the C.S. Mott Foundation.

Dixon said he and his classmates will have access to lawyers and professional product developers to receive assistance and advice on their designs. The ideal result would be for the students to garner additional funding and have their prototypes developed and mass distributed, Dixon said.

All four students are members of Skyline’s Design, Technology and Environmental Planning magnet. As part of their magnet capstone course, the students began working in pairs to identify, research, design and construct a solution to an open-ended engineering problem.

Teacher Thomas Pachera calls it his “the sky’s the limit” project.

He said it was sort of a fluke that his students entered the Young Innovators Competition. The class discovered the competition a few days before the deadline and scrambled to submit their business plans and product pitches. Pachera said he had three teams of students enter the competition, and the teams of Burns-Dixon and Epperson-Tripathy placed.

Pachera said this particular group of students is especially motivated and passionate about engineering. The boys often have texted their teacher on a Saturday night to tell him about a problem-solving discussion or engineering breakthrough they just had, Pachera said with a chuckle.

Both Burns and Epperson plan to pursue mechanical engineering in college post-graduation. Dixon will study environmental engineering at the University of Michigan and Tripathy’s interest is in biomedical engineering.

For Tripathy, his team’s sonar device for the blind directly correlates with what he hopes to do someday.

“I’ve always been intrigued by prosthetics,” he said. “I just think they are really cool and there are so many ways, in my opinion, they could be developed better.”


Vaughan Epperson shows off his team's sonar device prototype Tuesday in the Skyline engineering lab.

Melanie Maxwell |

Tripathy and Epperson explained their prototype involves installing ultrasonic sensors and a small motor inside of a kneepad. Epperson said the motor vibrates as the sonar technology detects an object in the vicinity of the individual wearing the kneepad. The motor will vibrate faster as the object becomes closer, he said.

“We think blind people should be able to be less reliant on others,” Tripathy said, adding the idea is to create a sonar device that could be installed in anything, such as a belt or a vest.

Epperson explained current solutions for blind people involve the blind using their hands to navigate, such as through a cane or a seeing-eye dog.

“We wanted to create something that was hands-free,” he said.

For Burns and Dixon, they had a number of unique ideas for possible projects, such as a raccoon-proof trashcan.

“But we wanted to do something that helped people,” Burns said. “There also are not many solar energy water distillers out there in the market … or they were overpriced.”

Most developing countries do not have access to clean water and about 1.5 million children die each year as a result of waterborne diseases, the duo found in its research.

The four students’ projects, along with their peers’ projects, also will be submitted to the Southeast Michigan Science Fair at Washtenaw Community College in March as well as the Michigan Industrial and Technology Education Society’s (MITES) competition at Central Michigan University in May.

  • Watch the video below to see Tripathy and Epperson's winning concept.

Danielle Arndt covers K-12 education for Follow her on Twitter @DanielleArndt or email her at


Heidi Koester

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 7:26 p.m.

Wow -- congratulations to all involved! Thanks for reporting this.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 3:32 p.m.

Some great looking ideas. Hat's off to the students, and their teacher Mr. Pachera! Excellent work, and ingenuity! On another note, your article states "about 1.5 billion children die each year as a result of waterborne diseases...". Based on a planet with a population of less than seven billion, 1.5 billion children dying per year due to waterborne diseases does not seem like it could be accurate. Perhaps someone misquoted?


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 7:55 p.m.

Another interesting point, the UNICEF article I posted indicated approx. 2.2 million children dying per year, and that document was from 2004. The one Andrew and Densu pulled their statistic of 1.5 million from is from 2006. It would be great to think that in a two year period that much progress had been made in cutting down on the number of child deaths being caused by waterborne diseases.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 7:50 p.m.

Fair enough, Andrew. Good work by all of you, by the way, if in two days the biggest flaw that could be found was one mistyped letter in a statistic! I hope Prima Civitas is able to give you guys the assistance you need to bring your product to market. And your teacher is a great guy, too! Go, Chargers! (He'll know what that means... ;^) )


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:53 p.m.

million, billion 220, 221 whatever it takes

Danielle Arndt

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:06 p.m.

Thanks Andrew for jumping in here!


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 5:37 p.m.

Hey sorry, we meant to type 1.5 million* We made the presentation in two days, and did not have much time to look over small details. Here is our original source: We just went in and corrected the mistake. Thanks for pointing it our for us!

Danielle Arndt

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 3:57 p.m.

Alarictoo, the stat was not a misquote. It's also included in the students' Prezi presentation and their report, which is available via the competition's website. I'm not sure of the students' source for the information, but I will see if I can find out since you seem very interested.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 3:39 p.m.

Actually, a quick Google search led me to a UNICEF site with information on this issue: They indicate that approximately 6,000 children die each day from water-borne diseases, for a total of approximately 2.2 million per year. While still a staggering number, it is orders of magnitude less than 1.5 billion.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 1:25 p.m.

Congratulations to these boys and good luck on taking their project further! This all made possible with thanks to Skyline's magnet programs based on the trimester system (that is currently under fire) and excellent staff to support it and the students!


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:54 p.m.

The students were told recently at Skyline, as well as the parents at the PTSO mtg, that if trimesters should go away, the magnet programs are lost as well. So whether or not they require trimester scheduling, it's a positive program that affects a population of students at Skyline that won't have the option at any other high school to continue in those programs. My understanding is that AP classes work with the magnet schedule. As for sports, these are all done outside of school hours. I like the fact that school ends at 2:25pm. This has given ample time for homework before practices/conditioning start later in the afternoons or even a break, which usually ends by 6:30pm, at least for soccer. Students then have time to get home for dinner, more homework, or attend other social events. I haven't seen a downside to the early start and end times at Skyline.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:51 p.m.

"Students would not be able to fit all these classes in under the semester scheduling and still take the mandatory credits in English, math, science, history, 2 physical fitness classes, 2 art classes, health, economics, etc." Amazing....because at Huron, they seem to have time for electives. Maybe somebody should call Dr. Williams up and ask how they manage this bit of magic.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 6:25 p.m.

If you don't like Skyline, you now have the choice of sending your kids to Pioneer or Huron with the new in-district transfer policy. Transportation could be a problem but I think we all will need to figure out ways to get our kids to school as high school busing will most likely end in a year or two.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

The magnet programs do not serve all Skyline students, just a minority who are randomly chosen to opt in. This does not justify keeping a trimester system in place. Many students outside of the magnets have to do online or summer classes or other scheduling gymnastics so that they can pursue equally valid paths to college. With 5 periods in the day, if a student is taking AP or year-long courses, it leaves little room to explore the electives (magnet included) that have been so highly touted. The District needs to figure out how to run the magnet programs on semesters, for the sake of the budget and the balance of students at Skyline.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 2:23 p.m.

Magnet classes are taken in the sophomore, junior and seniors years. Students would not be able to fit all these classes in under the semester scheduling and still take the mandatory credits in English, math, science, history, 2 physical fitness classes, 2 art classes, health, economics, etc. Also, while not required, college-bound kids feel obligated to take a foreign language for 4 years. Two trimesters equals 2 semesters so the tri scheduling allows for more classes. The magnet programs could not exist without the trimester scheduling.

Basic Bob

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 1:54 p.m.

Magnet programs don't require trimester scheduling.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 1:09 p.m.

Fantastic! Two great ideas, and so impressive to win the competition. All four winners will do great things in the coming years. Skyline HS is lucky to have a talented and inspirational teacher such as Mr. Pachera.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 12:25 p.m.

Do they actually teach "engineering" at Skyline high school? When I was younger, this was simply called "tinkering."

Danielle Arndt

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 4:06 p.m.

GoNavy, I actually was really impressed by the resources and technology available to these high school students for building prototypes and having hands-on experiences in the field. At my high school, our tech classes definitely did not have those resources available to them. Tom Pachera was telling me about a partnership the DTEP magnet has with Maker Works in Ann Arbor. Maker Works gives every student a significantly discounted membership, which the school pays for, to its workshop where they can come in and use the machinery whenever they want as well as receive instruction on how to use the various pieces of equipment. Check out Maker Works website: It's definitely more than "tinkering" today.

Basic Bob

Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 1:59 p.m.

In Ann Arbor, engineering is now about concepts and business plans. Tinkering is discouraged, then it's straight off to prototyping and offshoring.


Wed, Feb 6, 2013 : 11:14 a.m.

Congratulations to these young men! Skyline's magnet programs are excellent and offer unique opportunities for students to get involved.