STEVENSVILLE — Students from four local high schools were challenged Friday to figure out better ways to use common home appliances during the 2019 Whirlpool Youth Innovation Challenge.

But the appliances they are working with are top secret, with students required to sign confidentiality forms to participate. That’s because they will be working on a project Whirlpool is actually developing to come out next year, said Ellen Dutton, product marketing manager of KitchenAid small appliances, a brand of Whirlpool Corp. in Benton Harbor.

In past years, students have redesigned a wide variety of home appliances – from coffee makers to stand mixers to toasters. Last year’s winning team from Lakeshore High School built a better immersion blender. Joining Lakeshore in the challenge are high school teams from Lake Michigan Catholic, Bridgman and St. Joseph.

This year, teams of students chose to work on one of 18 challenges – including how to use the appliances to minimize dirty dishes, cook quickly, remove flavor residue and achieve consistent results. The teams will work with mentors from Whirlpool as they go through the process, which includes conducting consumer research, identifying a problem to be solved, designing a prototype and gathering consumer feedback. 

Dutton said she started the innovation challenge six years ago because while taking her daughter to visit colleges, she saw that her daughter didn’t have on her resume extra opportunities that made her stand out while applying for scholarships.

“I do this as an aid to you so you guys have real life experience, and you’re not just doing a case (in a) textbook,” she said. “... I tell kids this – You can’t tell me you want to be a veterinarian if you’ve never job shadowed a veterinarian and understand you have to put down dogs. These kids who are 17 think they want to be in marketing, but there’s so many facets to marketing. Is it product? Is it brand? I do this strictly so they can learn what we do in the business.”

Dutton doesn’t get paid to do it.

“I do it on my own time because I want to pour my knowledge into kids,” she said. “The best thing a leader can do is train their replacement. I am here to make these kids take my seat when I retire from Whirlpool.”

She said whatever they design has to be spectacular.

“You cannot have it be something that’s humdrum and something that exists today,” she said. 

And it has to solve a real need. 

“If I don’t like the way this appliance works, I’m going to fire that appliance,” she said.

She said the skills the students will learn during the challenge will help them be successful in life, not just at Whirlpool.

In November, the teams will pitch their ideas to judges, with the top 10 teams advancing to the Idea Fair, where they have a chance to win the top prize, which has yet to be announced.

“We’re here to help you, train you, guide you and to give you something pretty amazing to put on your resume for when you go to college,” she said.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege