Student Teams Split $50,000 in Prize Money

The winning DifferenceMaker team Image by Meghan Moore
The DifferenceMaker winner for 2017, Operation 250, seeks to chill ISIS recruitment.

By David Perry

A program to educate schoolchildren, their parents and teachers about sophisticated online ISIS recruitment efforts won top Campus Wide DifferenceMaker honors and $6,000 in the fifth annual DifferenceMaker Idea Challenge.

Operation 250 — named for the number of Americans known to have been recruited by ISIS — wowed a panel of seven alumni judges with a concise, polished presentation and a demonstrated passion for their work. The team of five, all but one of whom is a criminal justice major, plans to offer its website content and teaching guides free of charge to schools.

The evening was the culmination of the year’s DifferenceMaker events, rewarding 10 teams who pitched products and services they hope will make the world better. Teams were chosen from a field of 30 in a preliminary round and split the $50,000 in prize money.

Each team pitched its ideas for three minutes before a large crowd in University Crossing’s Moloney Hall and a panel of judges, including interior designer and HGTV star Taniya Nayak ’97. Chancellor Jacqueline Moloney noted that Nayak rushed from a Rachael Ray taping and caught a plane to attend the event.

The top honors for Operation 250 weren’t the team’s first win.  Earlier this year, the students won an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., after advancing to the final round of an international contest that aimed to fight the influence of extremists and terrorists. The contest, called Peer to Peer: Challenging Extremism, was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security and Facebook.  Operation 250 took third place and a $1,000 prize to support continued development of its project.

“We are completely not-for-profit,” said Nicolette San Clemente, a sophomore international business major who is part of Operation 250 , along with seniors Tyler Cote, Danielle Thibodeau and Jonas Pierribia and junior Jamie Keenan. The  group, she explained, hopes to raise funding entirely through donations and grants, including tapping into the $10 million in recently announced federal anti-terrorism grants.

In their carefully researched presentation, members of Operation 250 laid out their case for the dangers lurking online. They told the judges that 63 percent of teenagers receive messages from people they do not know, 25 percent have visited hate group sites and 14 percent have visited sites that describe how to build a bomb.

Nayak made a point of telling Operation 250 team members she was impressed with their “excellent” pitch.

Runners-up, each earning $4,500, were:

  • Significant Social Impact winner Guardian, which developed a sensor platform that attaches to drones to aid search and rescue operations; 
  • Contribution to a Healthier Lifestyle winner QBell, a mobile app nursing call bell that allows nurses to better manage calls; 
  • Innovative Technology Solution winner Project Starfish, an inexpensive and noninvasive prosthetic hand made with 3-D printing and advanced machine learning software; and 
  • Breezy, a real-time air quality monitoring device that can be tracked by phone or online, which took home First to Market honors.

Honorable Mention kudos (and $2,000 per team) went to:

  • the innovative clot filter Clot Catch; 
  • Bioprinting with Multimedia Curriculum, a cost-effective 3-D bioprinter for use with multimedia curriculum and an optional homework module for use in STEM education in high schools; 
  • Cyborg, a hybrid musical instrument that turns any object into a touch-sensitive instrument; 
  • Digibank, which uses digital transactions to allow customers to eliminate that jingle in their pocket and have it deposited into a designated account; and 
  • Spread the Love, a website for lesson plans given to schools where half or more of students qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

Before the two-hour pitch session, teams stood alongside easels with posters explaining their projects. They fielded questions from judges and others, and observers could vote for their favorite projects with fake money. The project that garnered the most voter money, which won the Fan Favorite award, was UML Green Roofs, a plan to implement safe, ecologically sound outdoor study spaces on campus by designing green roofs for library and dorm buildings; that team won $1,000.

A portion of the evening’s prize money will be in-kind legal services from Foley & Lardner LLP, where frequent DifferenceMaker mentor and judge Chris McKenna ’89 is a partner.

The evening’s winners must participate in a summer Boot Camp, where they will learn to further develop their ideas and products.