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a student works at a desk dimly lit by a lamp creating an invention
September 9, 2022

Ames Student-Inventor, Inspired by ‘Iron Man’ and Not Afraid To Fail, Wins National Recognition

This story was originally written for and printed in the Ames Tribune. Written by Phillip Sitter.

Jason Ahn’s favorite parts of Marvel’s “Iron Man” movies are not the superhero fights in hi-tech armored suits, but the scenes showing the process of invention that he’s gone through himself to win national recognition for an innovative classroom whiteboard design.

Ahn, 17, and a rising senior at Ames High School, said, “People love the Iron Man suit, but the real part of me falling in love with Iron Man in all those movies was not the actual product that they made, but it’s how they made it.”

“Any movies that had that lovely scene of them really trying hard and working through their failures, I love those scenes,” he said. “That gave me hope and courage to fight through failure, and stay up late to do that.”

For him, there was a good month’s worth of nights of staying up until 4 a.m. — before going to school those days — involved between having the idea in January for an auto rolling and erasing whiteboard, or ARE Board, and submitting it for competition.

All that work paid off earlier this month for Ahn when he was among about 70 K-12 inventors from across the country to win awards at the Raytheon Technologies Invention Convention U.S. Nationals, at the Henry Ford museum complex in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ahn, speaking from a summer-long vacation in South Korea, described himself as “a really dedicated engineer” who’s learned a lot about robotics lately and wants to have a career in it.

In his Advanced Placement Physics class — but long before that, too, throughout his time in school — he noticed his teachers struggle with having to write down and erase the same notes for each of their classes, if they could even reach the top of their whiteboards.

His working prototype of a whiteboard on a motorized conveyor belt system that can scroll it up and down is more efficient with time and space than a traditional whiteboard. He wanted to make something similar to an electronic whiteboard but far cheaper and useable worldwide.

“I’ve seen my friends kind of joking, ‘Isn’t this kind of a back step? We’ve evolved this way to electronic whiteboards. Why are you making something that’s more traditional than futuristic?'”

“In some cases, it’s good to keep the traditional aspects and characteristics of some fundamental tools,” because markers and erasers are more immediately tangible and accessible to people, he said.

One of the awards he won at Invention Convention U.S. Nationals for his ARE Board provides him with a patent lawyer to help him get a patent application with the fee covered. That’s a huge win in itself, as it would be Ahn’s first patent and it makes the money and time-costly process of getting one more attainable. He might not start a business to produce the ARE Board, but he’d be willing to sell a patent to another company.

His experience has inspired him to be more active in moving forward with ideas, “because I did not know the possibilities that I had.” Ahn thinks of things in daily life that might make the world a better place. “I’m making a notebook of all the ideas that I’m thinking of.”

Success didn’t come easy. He often worked on the ARE Board by himself while his parents were out of the country on business, “so I had to jog around town to get all the parts by myself, since I can’t drive. I stayed up until 4 a.m. trying to get the best prototype that I can.”

There’s no secret of his to staying awake during the day after a long night working; he was drowsy in class, and his teachers weren’t happy about that. “I’m human, I guess, I had to get sleep.”

Ahn’s advice for aspiring inventors: “No matter how many times you fail, if you’re really interested in that, just keep going until you can make it. Failure’s actually the best thing that you can do to move on and improve on yourself. Don’t be afraid to fail, and trust yourself. Push the hardest you can until you can get what you want.”