Paul Ritter had a vision. Speaking at a conference in 2012, Ritter, an ecology teacher at Pontiac Township High School, told a room full of colleagues that teachers worldwide needed to engage the best and brightest students and offer them a platform to showcase their ingenuity.
Ritter knew that ACT and SAT scores were not the whole sum of a student’s potential, and that students with the power to enact real change were in every school. They just needed the opportunity to apply themselves.
With a goal to inspire American youth to pursue innovative projects, Ritter co-founded Celebrating High School Innovators (CHSI). Ritter, now the director of CHSI, and Raymond Lewis Price, a professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, partnered with business and education leaders at Illinois State and Millikin Universities to create a competition that challenges high school youth in Illinois to present innovative, impactful ideas to a panel of judges composed of leading professionals.
Each fall, students participate in a preliminary round of Shark Tank-style presentations in order to qualify for the final round, held in the spring. The top five students or teams win $1,000 to further pursue their research and help establish startups.
The events alternate between Millikin and Illinois State. This year’s final was held at Millikin University on April 26, with 49 student participants from across Illinois.
In addition to hosting events, Illinois State bolsters the CHSI program through faculty and student support. Currently, five Illinois State faculty help lead CHSI: Mark Hoelscher, professor of entrepreneurship and director emeritus of the George R. and Martha Means Center for Entrepreneurship Studies; Willy Hunter, professor of chemistry and director of the Center for Mathematics, Science, and Technology; Chris Merrill, professor of technology; Robert Rhykerd, chair of the Department of Agriculture; and George Rutherford, associate professor of physics.
Two students, Blake Whittle and Thomas Moore, also serve as interns for the program, troubleshooting applicant concerns and managing social outreach. In addition, several past CHSI winners currently attend Illinois State, and several of this year’s participants have enrolled in the incoming freshman class
CHSI has driven high school students to create their own companies, obtain patents for inventions, and pursue ideas they might have otherwise thought impossible. Take for example, Moore, an Illinois State junior majoring in history education. Moore won a CHSI 2016 innovation award in collaboration with four other students from James B. Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. The team designed earthquake, wildfire, and medical emergency systems for Elon Musk’s proposed hyperloop transportation system.
“I never would have attempted this if not for the CHSI program,” Moore said. “If you have ideas for business ventures or inventions, it can be hard to find a community of like-minded individuals with similar goals and aspirations to help push you to pursue them. CHSI provides an extracurricular outlet for students driven to do unique projects and helps them find that community.”
CHSI offers students a platform to drive community change as well. That’s exactly what Whittle, a junior organizational leadership major, did. Whittle won a CHSI 2016 innovation award for his project at Pontiac Township High School, and his work led to him forming his own company.
Whittle was frustrated that the company formerly in charge of broadcasting his high school’s sporting events ran on a pay-per-view model. He thought it was wrong that a student-athletes’ families and friends had to pay in order to watch them compete. In response, Whittle created High School Zoom, which he describes as the “ESPN of high school sports.” High School Zoom allows schools to sign up to have their sports livestreamed on a website that fans can access for free.
“CHSI helped give me the motivation to know that what I am doing is making an impact on my own and others’ school and community,” Whittle said. “I would not be where I am today without CHSI. It has been a catalyst that has exposed me to new experiences and allowed me to network with the wonderful professors and professionals in the different organizations CHSI has partnered with like Illinois State.”
CHSI changes students’ perceptions of what’s possible, thanks to the work of the many educators, leaders, professionals, and sponsors like Illinois State that are involved in the program. Ritter is proud of the impactful program that he helped to create.
“I’m tremendously humbled to work with a team of so many incredible educators, students, and professionals,” Ritter said. “We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before, bringing kids together from all over the state with interests ranging from STEM to the arts. We don’t want to know what their ACT, SAT, or GPA is. We want to know what makes them exceptional, and we’re looking for everybody.”