Forgive Clint Downey and Jackson Cover for tooting their own horns these days. As freshmen at the University of Iowa, they play the trombone and trumpet in the Hawkeye Marching Band, while pursuing engineering degrees.

They’re already well versed in engineering, thanks to Project Lead The Way (PLTW) courses they took at Jefferson High School in nearby Cedar Rapids.

But Downey and Cover have achieved something most of their fellow students have not – registration of a provisional patent from their work as high school seniors in PLTW’s capstone course, Engineering Design & Development or EDD.

The two learned about Project Lead The Way in middle school, when Jefferson High teacher Lisa Digman came to talk about what classes would be available in the upper grades. The two enrolled in a variety of engineering courses in high school.

All those courses prepared them for the most demanding PLTW class of all – EDD, where students learn how engineers analyze problems and develop potential real-world solutions and products.

The two decided to design a new lyre, the device that holds sheet music in place when attached to an instrument.

“The most difficult part was the first trimester,” Cover says. “That’s when we had to decide what project we wanted to do and what problem we wanted to solve.

“Then we needed to come up with a solution and get into the designing aspect,” he adds. “Because of all the rules about not copying what others have done, we had to come up with our own ideas and then determine how to manufacture our product.”

The first phase of their research involved examining the existing patents for lyres.

“We checked to make sure this idea wasn’t already out there,” Cover says. “We found seven patents, but none of them had all the features we wanted and each had different aspects to their designs. We created a matrix that listed the key elements of each patented design – for instance, how does it attach to the bell, is it easy to remove, does it dent the instrument, can you use the back of the music sheets? With that knowledge, we designed our version to make sure we weren’t infringing on anyone else’s design.”

The second phase involved consulting experts in the field and surveying potential users of the product to determine if the concept was viable.

“We had two really great band directors at Jefferson,” Downey says. “They were able to give us expert opinions and had a lot of contacts, people for us to talk to about our concept. One was a music historian who told us that this was a worldwide problem – bands in Europe play outside more than they play inside. The current design is very similar all over the world and that helped us select our project, knowing that no one had done this before.”

“We contacted a longtime band director in Iowa, who was also known for making little devices in his garage,” Cover says. “I visited and interviewed him myself and it turned out he was the inventor of the current flip folder that he developed for his band more than 30 years ago.

“We discussed what aspects could be changed and what additional benefits we could provide with a new design,” Cover adds. “The advice of all these band directors helped us.”

Cover and Downey used Autodesk Inventor software to fashion a virtual prototype. They used a rapid prototyping machine to perfect their invention.

“We had to consider how humans would interact with the product,” Downey says, “which obviously we couldn’t do with just the computer. When we were designing our product, it was all about how the musician could most efficiently flip through sheet music that was being held in place on the trumpet or trombone.

“Having a prototype in our hands allowed us to consider how you’d attach it to the instrument, how far you’d have to reach to flip the sheet, what angle your hand would be at and how the design could make turning the music as easy as possible,” he adds. “With a prototype, we were able to show our design to musicians and band directors, try it ourselves, get feedback and make modifications to improve the design.”

Based on positive user feedback – some 50 fellow band members all told them their product was better than existing lyres – and a belief they had a commercially viable product, they contacted Jason Sytsma, an attorney specializing in intellectual property law at Shuttleworth & Ingersoll in Cedar Rapids.

Two versions they made for the trumpet and trombone could be protected by the same patent. Moreover, documentation they compiled in their engineering notebook was especially helpful in filing the patent.

With Sytsma’s help, the two filed a patent application in a couple of days. Armed with a provisional patent application, their product enjoys patent-pending status.

The two believe their lyre is easier to use and is more durable than conventional devices. They hope to strike a deal with a music equipment company to produce and market their product.

At an annual Iowa student symposium, the two were honored for “Best Overall Project” and recognized for having the product with the most market potential.

Digman, the PLTW teacher at Jefferson High School, is impressed with the development of the product and the two student-inventors.

“Witnessing them grow and change, developing the ability to apply technology, math and science to a real problem, sharpening their ability to think – that has been very satisfying to me as a teacher,” Digman says. “Both Clint and Jackson were impressive students as freshmen and they didn’t let me down as seniors.”

Editor’s note: This article appears in the June 2010 print edition.