As students from Clear Creek Middle School in Gresham, Oregon watched the devastation from Hurricane Harvey and Maria unfold last year, they say that the feeling that overcame them was simply, “helplessness.” So when their teacher asked them to come up with an idea for Samsung’s Solve for Tomorrow contest, which challenges public schools to use science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) skills to solve a community problem, they turned their feelings of powerlessness into a solution for saving lives.

Thomas Erickson, the teacher who guided them on the project, and his students used STEAM skills to develop an escape hatch that leads from the attic of a home to the roof, allowing residents to escape safely and signal for rescue.

“During the coverage of the hurricanes we heard broadcasters warn people not to go into the attics of their homes,” student Jesse Harmon explained in the team’s project video. “This got us thinking: Why can’t people more effectively use all the parts of their home during a natural disaster?”

That’s when the idea for “Life Hatch” was born.

Equipped with LED lights and an SOS alert system coded by the students, the ‘Life Hatch’ escape egress acts as a beacon to rescuers of a stranded victim’s location and can transmit radio signals on the FM band.

The project and prototype the Clear Creek Middle School team built was enough to land them a top 10 national finalist spot in the Solve for Tomorrow contest and $50,000 in technology for their school.

Clear Creek Middle School Students Showcase a Prototype of the “Life Hatch”

Clear Creek Middle School Students Showcase a Prototype of the “Life Hatch”

“Being in the top 10 means so much to me because I think that our project will actually go out into the world and actually help people,” said Sara R., a student member of the team.

The team’s hope is that Life Hatch will help more than just those affected by hurricanes. In their contest activity plan for the project, Erikson wrote their local region has seen greater flooding over the past 20 years, adding “These homes could serve as a test case for our product and might help the residents of those homes feel more comfortable in the future.”

Other use cases envisioned for Life Hatch include a safer way for homeowners to reach the roof for maintenance, preventing ladder injuries or fatal accidents, and access for fire fighters during a fire.

Erikson, nearly on the verge of tears after finding out the team won, said the students worked “pretty hard” to bring their vision to life. The team consulted with the city’s emergency manager on safety procedure, involved a specialty engineer to help with additional safety features for the Life Hatch and worked with a local metal fabricator to construct the prototype.

“Our hatch project has allowed us to think about design in a multi-directional way,” said Erickson, the teacher from Clear Creek Middle School leading the students. “Through the process we have been able to identify tweaks and solutions that go beyond the original purpose of the egress.”

For the students, that feeling of helplessness has now been transformed into a feeling of empowerment.

“Knowing that our school can accomplish something like this really makes me emotional, honestly… and doing this just makes me feel like I can accomplish more than I ever thought I could,” said Ondreka M., another student member of the group.