At the Middle School Innovators Academy graduation ceremony at ECU June 23, creative young thinkers showed their new product concepts. The Pitt County middle schoolers developed the concepts during a two-week program using facilities at ECU's Innovation Design Lab. The academy won first place in a national competition in talent development. (Slideshow photos by Cliff Hollis)

ECU Middle School Innovators Academy wins first place in national competition

ECU News Services

An East Carolina University program that teaches innovation and creative thinking to Pitt County middle schoolers has taken top honors in a nationwide competition in Indianapolis.

The ECU Middle School Innovators Academy won first place for excellence in talent development in the University Economic Development Association’s 2011 Awards of Excellence competition. Presenting at the competition were Wayne Godwin, director of ECU’s Innovation Design Lab, and Dr. Ted Morris, associate vice chancellor for ECU’s Office of Engagement, Innovation and Economic Development, which conducts the academy.

Godwin said the other two finalists, Mississippi State and Virginia Tech, had excellent programs. “We are pleased that ECU is ranked as the top program…in such a tough national competition. We must give credit to our middle school students who have a passion for innovation,” he said.

Morris credited ECU and its “significant commitment to fostering a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship across North Carolina,” he said.

The academy provides after-school and on-campus summer workshops for selected 6th graders who are paired with ECU art and design faculty and students. Academy participants develop creative ideas from initial concept to reality using state-of-the-art equipment in ECU’s Innovation Design Lab.

Pitt County art teacher Debbie Huggins worked with students from Hope Middle School at the two-week academy this summer. She said the academy is “a practical application of 21st Century skills, which require students to create, innovate, communicate, collaborate and critically think.”

Huggins said the students are naturally creative, but they need guidance to show how to put their ideas into action.  In the academy, she said, the students have access to both the guidance and the technology to make their ideas come alive.

At the close of the summer academy, students formally presented their ideas, which ranged from baby bottles to devices that protect garbage cans from predators. James Darden created the Guru, a cleaning robot for public spaces that collects discarded recyclable materials with a rotating claw, then vacuums and mops the area left behind.

Creating the Guru was “lots of fun,” Darden said.  “We learned different ways of thinking up new ideas and how to make them work. People sat down with us and showed us how to take our ideas and make them real.”

Other student projects included an inexpensive cold-gel catcher’s mitt to prevent heat exhaustion during baseball games, an insulated double-sided baby bottle that keeps two separate liquids hot or cold, and a high capacity automated pet feeder that uses an RFID tracking system so only a tagged pet can receive food.

The academy developed as a collaboration between ECU and the College of Design at North Carolina State University. A parallel summer academy takes place at the Centennial Campus Middle School in Raleigh.

For additional information about the award or the academy, contact Ruthann Cage, director of Industry and Economic Development, at or visit

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