Guest Columnist

Advice from a past science fair champion

The Eastern Iowa Science and Engineering Fair was held in the gymnasium at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids in 1981. More than 125 junior and senior high students showcased projects in fields that included biological sciences, behavioral and social sciences, biochemistry, botany, microbiology, zoology, chemistry, physics, engineering, earth and space sciences, mathematics and computers.
The Eastern Iowa Science and Engineering Fair was held in the gymnasium at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids in 1981. More than 125 junior and senior high students showcased projects in fields that included biological sciences, behavioral and social sciences, biochemistry, botany, microbiology, zoology, chemistry, physics, engineering, earth and space sciences, mathematics and computers.

Forty-one years ago, when I was 17, I worked on something that made my heart beat faster each time I thought of it. I worked on this idea after my work chores on the farm were complete, and with a great amount of passion.

The project did not originate with my school. I began it in the summer of 1977.

I had been fixing television sets and reading my uncle’s Air Force television theory book. Back then, TVs ran on tubes and required a lot of maintenance. This was a skill I independently developed that helped carry me into college and pay the bills. It followed the time I built a digital clock and calculator from parts and chemicals ordered from a Popular Electronics magazine.

While reading a 1977 issue of Popular Electronics, I saw a new part: A LED dot matrix display for displaying the alphabet, not just numbers. From that I had an epiphany of building a large, flat screen television out of my own custom field of LEDs. Back then there was nothing remotely projecting the advent of a flat screen TV — this was an original idea.

I worked all summer on the project. No one quite understood what I was doing. By the fall I had the small prototype working in my bedroom. I used a new computer memory addressing chip to “address” a custom field of LEDs on a custom circuit board I had etched myself.

I used my mother’s transistorized kitchen television set to drive the necessary signals into my custom synchronization circuit and LED matrix. The flat LED TV screen design took a lot of time and effort to solve the synchronization challenges, but it finally worked and surprised my family.

I entered the project into the Westinghouse Science Talent Search as a paper that November. It won the honors group in January 1978. That got me invitations to scholarships and colleges. I worked on plans to build a larger one.

That March I was asked if I had anything for a science fair project. My first answer was no because I felt the design was a bit of a secret — not originally intended for the fair. I was asked again a week later and I agreed.

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It won the state science fair competition. I had judges that included local Rockwell Collins engineers that appreciated it. The most rewarding aspect was the trial and error and discovery.

The advice I have for young science fair participants is to think original.

Hanging a television on the wall was my stated goal to my family, and I did just that with my model at a time when television picture tubes weighed well over 100 pounds.

I recommend, if in your gut you believe you have a “home run,” to consult a patent professional. I have twice been a judge at the International Science and Engineering Fair. They take intellectual property seriously. I do wish I had the professional help they have today given the commercial outcome of the flat screen — mine was the front-runner.

I know competition is near and I wish everyone the best of luck with their projects.

I encourage contestants to use their intuition to envision a “profound idea” — be original, you have the ability to breakdown difficult problems.

• Jim Mitchell is retired and has 50 patents with Rockwell Collins. His 1978 breakthrough was a “Flat Low-Power Light Emitting Diode Television Screen.” He wishes all competitors good luck in the March 16 science fair.

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