By Phyllis L. King and Anil Rathi


At any given moment in the world, there are more than one million people flying in the air. We have the Wright Brothers to thank for that, as well as Charles Lindbergh, the daring pilot who in 1927, crossed the Atlantic from New York to Paris, proving that long-haul air travel was possible.

As a humble pilot delivering airmail, Lindbergh was catapulted from obscurity to world fame. This would not have been possible without his bravery: he undertook the risky 3,600-mile flight that changed everything. Six others died trying. His historic journey sparked the beginning of investments in innovation in air travel, ushering in an era of global trade, migration and more. The world was now on the move.

Today, it would be virtually impossible to imagine what life would look like if that flight never took place. What if we were moving by steam ship – literally, a slow boat to China -- without the choice of long-haul air travel? We take for granted that the world moves at a hyper-accelerated pace when compared to yesteryear.

Perhaps the 25 year-old Lindbergh was enticed by the thought of winning a sizable $25,000 prize, offered by French-born hotel magnate Raymond Ortieg, a man who was fascinated with aviation and what it could offer the world.

Ortieg was wealthy enough to fund the prize that would equal almost $370,000 in today’s dollars, something that would propel the most important innovations and investment in aviation technology. Put simply, the challenge, prize money and competition may have put “fire in the belly” of the pilots who dreamed of the impossible. The world and aviation were forever altered.


Fast forward to today. The world has new problems to solve and innovations to find. As pressure mounts on to halt reliance on fossil fuels by diversifying America’s energy sources, what are today’s game changers? 

  • What if we could drive innovation just like Raymond Ortieg, except in a different industry, such as renewable energy – to foster a new energy mix in America? What if we chose to explore an energy source that is not as common as solar or wind, such as geothermal?

  • What if we excited a community, the next generation of young, diverse problem solvers? What if we also reinvigorated the existing community of scientists and others, who would be engaged in a new way to solve an old problem?

  • If we collaborated across sectors and disciplines to cross-pollinate within the ecosystem, could the impossible become possible?

  • How can we foster our own grand mission – one that would produce a new, innovative class, excited to find unique perspectives to solve the world’s most pressing problems?

Compelling propositions? These are some of the questions posed by us: the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Office (GTO), Idaho National Laboratory (INL), Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE), and innovation and employee engagement platform SKILD

The challenges the U.S. Department of Energy faces are myriad: Despite the abundance of geothermal energy, it is not simple to extract as an energy source. Would fresh sets of eyes offer new solutions?

The proposition kept us up at night. If we could unleash new solutions in geothermal, we too, could change the course of our corner of the world. More clean energy could alter the world, the future of our children, and their children. We were inspired by this mission, just like Ortieg and his vision for a world of constant flight.


The goal: to use the innovation challenge to introduce geothermal energy to students, keeping in mind that a contest would be an effective way of introducing new technologies.

Innovation could go viral. By creating a product for a competition, student enthusiasm would bubble and spread to the communities around them. We were right. Word got out – there were even requests to participate from overseas.

We have seen the benefits of challenges before, as we have run multiple geothermal student competitions that were sponsored by DOE. We were reminded there is great power in crowdsourcing answers.  

Consider the classic demonstration by university professors: the “wisdom of the crowd” concept. When a group was asked how many jellybeans were in a jar, the collective estimate was far more accurate than individual guesses. The same can be said for innovation challenges, which bring many answers to a given problem, from diverse sources.

In addition, challenges help to find, focus, and fund new talent. What happens when passionate people are put together? Together, we would rediscover the thrill of solving a problem, joy in the act of creation, and excitement at the prospect of innovating.


In January, challenge participants were given the following parameters for the 2019 Geothermal Design Challenge™:

As a member of the FORGE project team you are tasked with siting a new geothermal well that will help researchers better understand man-made geothermal systems. Using the data provided, recommend an ideal subsurface location to create a sustainable subsurface heat exchanger. Where do you target your next production well to maximize geothermal reservoir performance?

Students tackled real-world problems with cutting-edge data collected from deep below the earth’s surface at Utah’s FORGE site. Teams submitted portfolios of five to ten data visualizations that could aid in the selection of the next well location at FORGE’s GTO flagship initiative, which is an underground laboratory where subsurface scientists test new enhanced geothermal systems technologies.

The key: to take highly technical information, and tell it in a non-technical way. Some students knew nothing about geothermal energy.

A wide-range of entrants from around the country applied, submissions included high school students to PhD-level, in a variety of disciplines, not just scientists. Teams consisted of a minimum of two to four people. The final count included 79 teams, 37 distinct universities and 7 distinct high schools. Submissions came from all over the country: 20 states and Washington, D.C. Requests came from other countries too.


Submission criteria included the level of creativity, innovation, analytical depth, design and communication. Judges were impressed at the range of submissions, as well as the quality of the use of data science in a non-traditional way. Youth ended up reinvigorating judges and staff and learning went two ways. Knowledge came from unexpected places.

The winners analyzed data using open-source Python, ArcMap, ArcScene, Open Mining Format, ParaView, SGeMS, and SimPEG, and Tableau, to name a few.

First Place


Sierra Sellman and Michelle Rodrigue, First Place, $5,000

DePaul University and Georgia Institute of Technology

Submission: “EGS Site Selection Using GIS and Machine Learning”





Second Place


Christopher “Bane” Sullivan and Adam Kinard, Second Place, $3,500

Colorado School of Mines

Submission: “Open Source Approach to 3-D Communication”





Third Place


Ahinoam Pollack and Ayaka Abe, Third Place, $2,500

Stanford University

Submission: “Want to Explore FORGE Data?”



Every challenge has major learning. Most exciting are the takeaways, new ways of collaborating, cross-pollination, and new processes. 

The most important takeaway for us: challenges are a new way of conducting research in an exciting, collaborative forum that produces diversity of thought and fresh insights in a fun, exciting, and cross-disciplinary way.

A few key takeaways from others:

Challenges are a way for motivated talent to be self-nominating. “This means challenges are the place to find the next generation of scientists and engineers,” said Dr. Robert Podgorney, geothermal/fossil energy ​lead, Idaho National Laboratory. Pleased at the results of the challenge, he said he was impressed at the enthusiasm of the contestants.

When the contest began, he was worried that there would only be grad students with deep knowledge competing, but that he was pleasantly surprised at the range of students and disciplines that applied. “They approached the problem in ways that I would not have, and I was impressed at the use of cutting-edge machine learning and algorithms, and the fact that they were very close to being on the mark,” he said. 

In addition, Podgorney was surprised that a desire to innovate came from all over. “I thought it would only be Stanford, OU, TAMU, etc, but students submitted from all over the country,” he said, adding that selfishly, the default thought is to only look at “pipeline universities” for answers.

Dr. John McLennan, co-PI, FORGE, who also judged the challenge, said that the challenge helps extend the Department of Energy and Idaho National Laboratory’s overall mission. In addition, the challenge got people excited and was an excellent educational tool, even if there was a carrot (of a prize),” he said.

The contest was a testament to the beauty of youth, because of the amount of creativity and diversity of the presentations, and effective use of modern media. He noted that learning was two-way: “Sometimes we are stuck in our ways and we don’t have the capabilities of modern media in terms of visualization. I saw strong interest in artificial intelligence (AI) and am seeing that as one of the central themes in terms of everything we do these days,” he said.

The contest changed his mind about AI too. Initially he was cynical about it, but so many of the submissions used AI as well as machine learning as part of their designs, he was forced to reevaluate. New ways of innovating spread in his direction: “I seriously need to look at this a bit more than looked at in the past,” he said, adding that if somehow this contest can translate learning to a different generation of learning maybe after the contest, where results are more publicized, then it has real value. “People who are stuck in their ways can learn from others,” he said.

McLennan added that he was excited that the competition became not just national, but international, and hoped that applications could eventually be accepted from all interested parties. Lastly, he also noted the level of interest and enthusiasm for geothermal as a zero carbon emission platform.

Contests get rid of blind spots, according to Tammie Borders: Challenge Judge, Research Scientist, Idaho National Laboratory, who wrote the proposal for the original contest. “They can drive paradigm shifts and can lead to revolutionary advancement. Science is sometimes filled with a small number of experts. The result is groupthink, the community doesn’t know they are doing it the same old way,” she said.

Borders noted that two goals were accomplished: to get students more interested in geothermal energy and get them to think about it as a potential career space, and second, to drive innovation in ecosystems, especially from different disciplines and backgrounds. She found webinar tutorials, which were very helpful during the contest to drive engagement and conversation, critical pieces.  

She was also impressed by the diversity of thought and innovative submissions. “For innovation, all disciplines are needed. There is a need for policy people, those with legal degrees, technical writers. All work in an ecosystem that drives growth in the industry. Geologists need to work with other disciplines,” she said.


Sierra Sellman, 1st Prize winner, said that as a student of data science with a background in GIS, her team wanted to provide an out of the box, data-centric perspective. Her product was designed for individuals who were not familiar with EGS or machine learning techniques, with a goal to walk readers through the approach to the problem, execution of GIS, and machine learning methods.

Bane Sullivan, 2nd Prize winner, said that as a master’s student focusing on hydro-geophysics, the contest was great as he took the data and ran it through what he was already working on as an open source software developer. “The whole innovation thing always comes as a part of who I am, as I am always looking into what’s new and what’s next?” he said. In addition, the challenge was a positive experience, as he received attention from potential employers and people in these domains. “It will help build a brand around myself and promote cutting edge technology that I am passionate about,” he said.

He noted that challenges should encourage use of open source software, and figures should be reproducible. The winning teams’ projects should be reproducible by the public later in the future; not having that can stymy innovation. He encourages the reproducibility and use of open source software.

Ahinoam Pollack, 3rd Prize winner and a geothermal engineering student working on her PhD said that she initially had parties with other students to learn Tableau, the software that she used in the submission. She said that she was happy to use new tools, but Tableau worked very slowly. She was happy but surprised her team won, as some of the submission was done quickly, at the last minute.

She split her prize money with her partner, and they gave $200 dollars of the prize money to charity, and $100 to each person that came to the Tableau party. “There were many benefits. My friendship with my partner Ayaka was fostered, and I got a lot of exposure on LinkedIn after winning,” she said.


We are pleased to announce we are already in the planning stages of our next challenge, and look forward to keeping you apprised of developments and our launch in January 2020. Stay tuned. 

Phyllis L. King: Student competitions like the Geothermal Design Challenge™ are a mechanism to expose young people to STEM topics and draw interest in areas they might not be familiar with, like geothermal technologies. There are hidden talents within these student communities, and we are just scratching the surface with these creative minds.  

Anil Rathi: CEO of SKILD: We want to create an “innovation pool” that will drive society’s greatest answers. We want contestants to design, produce and play. As the head of a company that has run over 600 innovation challenges over the past 17 years – with government agencies, Fortune 500 companies, NGOs, and more -- I am pleased to see that the DOE is thinking down the road about how innovation challenges can speed up the nation’s progress. Other institutions such as NSF and other academies and resolute institutions are following suit, looking to engage communities, find answers and produce the most cutting-edge thinkers on the most important problems of the day. 

**Phyllis King is a Systems Analyses Specialist, Idaho National Laboratory, architect of the innovation challenge, who spearheaded and managed the process from start to finish.

** Anil Rathi is the CEO and Founder of innovation and employee engagement platform, Skild; the company,  has run over 600 innovation challenges around the world.

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