Thomas James - Bright Sparks Winner Still Charging Ahead
Thomas James is a Skills Bright Sparks old boy – yet he’s still only 16 years of age.
Thomas has been entering the Skills Bright Sparks competition since he was in Year 7 – he’s now in Year 12 at Burnside High School in Christchurch – and has designed and built around five different inventions that he’s entered in the competition.
And last year, he came out on top – winning the 2018 Overall Male Award for his Wheelie Drive invention, a device that delivers your wheelie bin out to the curb. The idea was inspired by Thomas’ elderly neighbour who was no longer able to take out her bins.
Since that win, Thomas is currently getting help to take his invention to the next level. In fact, he says, thanks to lots of feedback he received, the Wheelie Bin is currently undergoing a complete redesign.
“Much of the feedback has been from people who would be general users of the product,” says Thomas. “People who would use it and its different applications. Ultimately, they are your customer so it's really helpful to get their feedback on the finer details.”
Tips from Thomas
Sometimes it’s really easy to get caught up in the engineering and design and forget practicality. So, remembering who your end user is, is key, advises Thomas.
“Ultimately, the idea that solves a problem is the best entry,” he says. “Be passionate about your invention – that is what will keep you going and help you put your best effort in.
“You also don’t need to have it [your idea] polished and all finished. Show it to as many people and get as much feedback as you can along the way.”
Thomas says he and his older brother Nathan were each other’s biggest critics when they were both creating inventions for Skills Bright Sparks. Nathan – who is now off at university studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the University of Canterbury and running a blog called Adventures from the South – also designed inventions for Bright Sparks throughout his high school years.
“Our project ideas were bounced off each other and we were really critical of each other’s design – but it was actually really good having someone make you think beyond the surface level,” says Thomas. “It was also really useful that he’d gone through it before, because I could then use all his leftover components!”
And there were a LOT of components. The boys were lucky to come from a very supportive home because those components made their way into all rooms of the home.
“Dad often complains that his workbench is not usable because it is filled with electronics and bits and pieces,” laughs Thomas. “Sometimes they are even on the kitchen bench. Mum just moves them aside, but Dad will complain. I guess they are starting to get used to it ten years on!”
As well as the Bright Sparks award, Thomas also received an ASB Incubator Award, which, he says, has been hugely beneficial when he has approached mentors and other resources for help in fine-tuning his Wheelie Bin device.
“Winning the Bright Sparks award has been so great,” says Thomas. “Particularly in terms of providing that backing when you approach people for help with progressing your design. That and the ASB Incubator Award I received – you’re not just a random high school student rocking up to them then. With Skills Bright Sparks and ASB behind you, they know you will actually put the effort in and are more willing to assist you.”
The focus for Thomas from here is preparing his entry for the 2019 Skills Bright Sparks competition – the newly reworked Wheelie Bin all things going to plan – and also planning his applications for scholarships once he finishes at Burnside High School next year.
“I’m thinking electrical engineering or mechatronics,” says Thomas. “Something where it is about solving problems, because that is what I really enjoy doing.
“I am currently looking at scholarships, hopefully to Canterbury or Auckland Uni. It would be great to hopefully get to Canterbury as then I can stay close to home... that way I’ll still be able to raid the pantry!”