Innovation Challenge Club – a WSU-tied program – shines with top national award

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The Innovation Challenge Club at North Central High School was surprised to learn earlier this month that the group had taken first place in the nation in the Pharm4Me Innovation Challenge, partly because some of the students didn’t even know their work was part of a competition.

The seven students who make up the team are seventh- and eighth-grade students who take classes at the high school as part of the Institute of Science and Technology. The program is popular and there’s a limit of 60 seventh-graders and 60 eighth-graders.

“It’s a raffle,” said seventh-grader Gavin Woods. “I put my name in really early.”

He said he wanted to be a part of the Institute because his friend Emily Richardson had joined the program the year before. “She said she had a really fun time.”

At the beginning of the school year, 30 students joined the after-school Innovation Challenge Club that partners with students in the Washington State University pharmacy program, but the numbers quickly dwindled.

Students teamed up and picked a topic they wanted to focus on. They met twice a week all year to research their health-related topics and prepare a presentation. This year, students chose opioid abuse, depression, suicide and mental illness.

Club adviser Alex Karim, who teaches microbiology and biomedical technology, said he was approached by WSU last year about starting up the club. It got off to a fast start and students placed second in the nation. He said he’s very proud of their hard work and dedication. “They’re competing against mostly high school students,” he said.

Eighth-graders Mercedes Greene and Dorina Seremet and seventh-grader Hazel Sullivan picked opioid abuse, which led them to research the drug Narcan, administered to people overdosing on drugs. “We learned about how big of a problem it is in our community,” Greene said.

The topic originally was being handled by another group but they picked it up, said Sullivan. She said she thought the topic was important. “I wanted to make a difference in our community,” she said.

The three also tackled depression. Greene said people with depression often feel worthless, among other things. “The way people feel when they have depression is strange and unique,” she said.

Seremet wanted to continue the work she did last year. “Last year me and Mercedes did stress,” Seremet said. “Stress is a leading cause of depression and I wanted to continue that work.”

A.J. Wallgren was in the club last year and researched mental illness. He did the same topic again this year because he felt like he could do better at it. He said he joined the club because he wanted to check it out.

“I just wanted to experience new things,” he said. “I liked it a lot and just continued with it.”

Eighth-graders Emily Richardson and Conner Cromeenes researched suicide prevention along with Woods. Both of the older students wanted to learn more about how to prevent suicide based on their personal experiences with it.

“We had a few suicides last year in this school,” Richardson said.

Cromeenes said he researched suicide last year but wanted to learn more. “I lost a friend last year,” he said. “I’ve had family members who committed suicide.”

He said his research has already paid off. “I’ve helped people I know already,” he said.

As a returning club member, he knew their work would be judged in a competition, but that didn’t matter to him. “I didn’t care about the competition,” he said. “I just wanted to make a difference in the community.”

That’s a common viewpoint among the students, Karim said. “They’re really focused on that aspect of it,” he said. “They feel very strongly and are very invested.”

Two years ago the club didn’t exist and now Karim said they’re considering where to go with their success. “Their presentations have national recognition and are now getting national attention,” he said. “Now we’re looking at Ted Talks and TedX.”

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