NAUGATUCK — When snow clogged her boot bindings and briefly interrupted her skiing during a family vacation last winter, 11-year-old Emily Fine didn’t complain. She started thinking, and when she and her family came home, she started tinkering.
She came up with a little device she calls the “Binding Buddie.” It’s a stiff brush attached to the toes of ski boots, designed to help get the snow out of ski bindings. With help from her dad, she made a prototype with a pair of cobalt-blue ski boots her brother had outgrown and yellow scrub brushes with the handles sawn off.
The Hillside Intermediate School fifth-grader displayed her invention at the school’s Invention Convention. Each student in her grade was required to come up with an idea, create a prototype, and refine it in their science classes.
“The Invention Convention is nice because it’s tactile,” Hillside science teacher Kushtrim Lumani said. “Whereas if they see something on TV, they say, ‘I could never do that.’”
Fine couldn’t believe it when she won her school contest out of over 100 fifth-graders.
“I was like, ‘Why would they pick me?’” Fine said.
She kept on winning.
After getting high scores at regional and state competitions, Fine learned she was one of 300 students from across the country selected to attend the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo on June 3 at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, just outside Washington, D.C. Fine walked away with one of 40 awards given out that weekend.
“You want to win, everyone always wants to win, but just getting there is big,” she said carefully. Then she giggled, “I’m just so glad that I did win!”
A week after the contest, with her parents Christa and Dan Fine behind her, Fine perched on the edge of the tan sofa in the family’s Naugatuck home. Their beagle, Annie, barked and ran laps around Fine, up on the couch and back down to the floor, ears flopping.
Fine is high-energy too, bouncing her foot as she speaks, windmilling her arms when she makes an important point. But she’s completely composed when she’s explaining her invention, discussing the day in Vermont when she noticed snow getting stuck in her ski boots, and how the Binding Buddie solves that problem. She thinks she’s rehearsed this speech hundreds of times. Presenting her invention was part of the contest, and that composure was surely part of what got Fine to the national convention.
This was only the second iteration of the National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo, said Susan Mostowy, the operations director of Connecticut’s Invention Convention. Schools across the state use the invention curriculum. The state-level contest in Connecticut has been going on for 34 years, and is the largest and oldest program of its kind in the U.S., said Mostowy, with 17,000 students participating in 2017.
As a result of that history, the state made a strong showing at the national competition: Almost a third of the 300 participants were students from Connecticut.
Now, the Binding Buddy has a provisional patent, which will protect Fine’s idea for a year while she decides if she will pursue a full patent. In the meantime, Fine wants to figure out how to improve the prototype.
Fine’s mother, Christa Fine, is more excited about the possible future she sees for her daughter in science or engineering.
“When we got back, she was like, ‘What’s next?’” she said.
Lumani said the benefits of the slow, iterative process of invention go beyond contests and patents, and even beyond careers in engineering.
“It teaches kids to persevere, to fight through obstacles they might have.”