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Students at West Middle School in Colorado Springs react to the news of their proposed project winning a statewide Samsung prize Monday.

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A “What if” idea hatched by a West Middle School teacher and his students in November has become a “Whoa, this is going to happen” scenario.

“We were ecstatic,” math teacher Phil Hutcherson said of his students when they learned Monday that their proposed project is the Colorado winner in the Samsung “Solve for Tomorrow Contest.”

The concept — to develop an interactive communications board for people who are homeless or verging on homelessness — was selected from thousands of entries statewide, according to Samsung.

The multilingual kiosk will be set up in front of soup kitchens and similar agencies to help people access food, shelter, self-care, health and job training services.

The device, likely a touch screen with graphics and words, will advise how to get started to obtain help, hours of agencies and what services they offer, best walking and bus routes to the agencies and other information that homeless people need.

Hutcherson and his students will receive $20,000 in technology to launch the project and a Samsung video kit to create a three-minute video showcasing project development. The video, due Feb. 15, will qualify the project for the contest’s next level, which has prizes of $50,000 and $100,000.

“The more community support we get, saying this is something we need, the better chance we have of making it to the nationals,” Hutcherson said.

If the project is chosen as one of 10 national finalists, people can vote for their favorite. That’s a few months away.

The contest encourages teachers and students to solve real issues in their community using science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM curriculum. This year, classrooms were asked to identify issues unique to their communities.

Hutcherson, an 18-year teacher, said he thought of the interactive board, having lived on food stamps and in subsidized housing as a child, having to find work at a young age to help his mom pay the rent.

“Recently, our city was voted one of the best places to live in the nation,” he said. “And for us, our question is: Is that for everyone? Is it really the best place to live for everyone who needs these kind of resources?”

Homelessness, which some residents rate as the city’s No. 1 problem, speaks to the hearts of teenagers as well as adults, Hutcherson said.

Initially, only five students wanted to work on the presentation. But the team has grown to 34 and counting. That’s about one-eighth of West’s students, Hutcherson said.

“Prior to this, they were thinking: Can we help limit people begging on the side of the road? But as we’re getting into this, they’re starting to realize this is much more than begging; this is mental health concerns, this is job training and employment. People who need lots of things beyond simple handouts.”

The team now is identifying roles and tasks to move the project forward and meet tight deadlines this semester.

Students will design and program the interface device, Hutcherson said. Other students will manage the project, interview social service agencies, conduct research, write content, edit and motivate teammates to “keep everyone energized.”

“We’re trying to figure out how we can best use these minds and hands to make it happen,” Hutcherson said. “It’s interesting how many students expressed excitement to be part of it.”

The goal is to develop a device that could reach a national scale, with information “not just to tell people how to access resources, but also prevention resources to help people become more self-sufficient and develop a more supportive community to limit regressions.”

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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