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Invention Convention: Students Wins $10,000 in Prizes at Design Competition

Dozens of students put their crafting skills to the test, building game prototypes aligning with the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.

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The Invent-a-thon winners with their project Biome Builder.

Art supplies not unlike those found in an elementary school classroom—construction paper, paint, mason jars, trinkets, mini trees, and more—awaited students in the AU Center for Innovation (AUCI) on the morning of February 18. 

“It looked like a hobby store threw up everywhere,” said Cammi Rood, CAS/BS ’23, a student worker in the Design and Build Lab, who entered the contest. 

Nearly 100 undergrads and graduate students grabbed scissors and glue to piece together prototypes during AU’s first annual Sustainability Invent-a-thon. The goal: to create a toy or a game designed to educate young students about a United Nations sustainable development goal. The prize: $10,000, including $5,000 to the first-place team. 

“Sustainability is in AU’s DNA,” said Danielle Vogel, WCL/JD ’07, assistant director of AUCI, which partnered with the Design and Build Lab for the event. “We’re constantly looking at ways to engage students, teach them, and maximize their impact through sustainability goals.” 

Sixteen teams, many of which banded together shortly after meeting for the first time, spent eight hours developing and building their prototypes during the first leg of the competition. Each team was assigned one of the UN’s 17 goals, and all decided to construct a game. Five teams advanced to the finals on March 4, giving them two weeks to perfect their product. 

The winning team—Madeleine Danzberger, CAS/BA ’23, Joseph Rogero, Kogod/BS ’23, Kennedy Smith, CAS/BS ’25, and Rood—constructed a three-player board game, Biome Builder, which teaches elementary schoolers about biodiversity. The game—which focuses on UN goal 14 about life on land, protecting terrestrial ecosystems, and stopping biodiversity loss—features three biomes and five ecosystems and includes hexagonal pieces and action cards.  

Danzberger entered the competition individually and had never met her teammates until the morning of the invent-a-thon. They bonded in the first round and stayed in contact over a group chat and in-person meetings while refining their game. Danzberger, an environmental science major, plans to work in sustainability, so the excitement about the competition outweighed any awkwardness about teaming up with strangers. 

“We went from zero to 100—it felt like a race,” she said. “The exercise was a great lesson on delegating tasks and hands-on learning. Everybody contributed, and we got such positive feedback.” 

The team went from using glitter and glue for their prototype to the Design and Build Lab’s 3D printer. The feedback from the judges, who included AU professors and a development consultant for the World Bank, could keep Biome Builder blooming past the competition. Rood and Danzberger said they hope to meet with the AUCI after spring break to see if there’s a place for the project in the center’s incubator. 

The invent-a-thon replaced AU’s hack-a-thon after the latter saw a drop in participation.  

“We think the sky’s the limit for the invent-a-thon,” said Vogel, who also teaches in Kogod’s Department of Management. “We’re already talking about how to scale up the competition in the future.” 

The second-place team (Natalie Parker, Pearl Jindal, Isabelle Ritz, Mikki Mesfin) won $3,000, and the third-place finisher (Lily Kaiser, Hailee Arrington, Isabella Hite, Caden Headrick, Kim Minseong) received $2,000.