Sports passion to a pending patent
How a Raytheon engineer coached a student-athlete inventor
Makenna Bentley needed an edge.
The Lutheran High School of Orange County student, in her final season of high jump competition, turned to her track coach for advice. But the coach, J. R. Richardson, is also an engineering fellow at Raytheon in Fullerton, California. Bentley knew her coach's background at Raytheon, and asked him if a scientific solution might help her gain a few inches. Like a true engineer, he turned the student-athlete toward physics and mathematics.
An inventor with several patents to his credit, Richardson worked with Bentley to develop a device that uses an infrared beam to show how high a jumper is above the bar, signaling just the right moment to complete a jump. The pair have filed for a patent, now pending, for the device.
Richardson’s guidance in “bringing math to life” allowed Bentley to see track and field in a different light, she said. The collaboration grew out of Richardson's general desire to help students pursue science, engineering, technology and math, the subjects known collectively as STEM, according to the coach.
“I never intended for this to be entrepreneurial,” said Richardson, a systems engineer who works on navigation and transportation systems for Raytheon. “I wanted to prove that young women could do a project like this.”
Women currently hold fewer than 25 percent of STEM jobs in the U.S., according to the Department of Commerce, so Raytheon encourages its employees to volunteer and help girls realize the rewards of such careers. It’s part of the company’s larger math and science education initiative, which includes sponsorship of high-tech Centers of Innovation at Boys & Girls Clubs facilities and support of many local programs, from math tutoring to coaching student robotics teams.
The idea for the patent was sparked as Bentley and Richardson were talking about an upcoming track meet. Bentley said she didn't know how high she was jumping, which was frustrating. She wished there was technology to tell her so she could improve her jumps.
On his own, Richardson started working on the idea. He presented Bentley with two 3-D-printed prototypes at their annual summer goal-planning luncheon. Bentley joked about patenting the technology, but didn’t know where to begin.
Richardson did. He began researching the idea and explained the patent process to Bentley so they could write the application together.
Their invention consists of two panels, installed at either end of the high-jump crossbar, which contain infrared transmitters and receivers. As a body crosses the infrared beams, algorithms compute the jumper’s parabolic flight path, tracking specific body part locations relative to the crossbar. The algorithms trigger three beeps at the right moment to signal when the jumper should kick out to complete the jump. As athletes practice more and more with the device, they learn proper kick-timing – one of the most crucial elements of a good high jump.
During the process, Bentley moved to Texas to start her freshman year at Trinity University. Both Bentley and Richardson continued to work on the patent until they reached a challenge: there was already similar technology in existence, but in the form of a videogame. Bentley and Richardson rewrote and successfully re-filed their high jump technology idea.
“High jump incorporates so many aspects of STEM,” said Bentley. “There are 30 things that have to go right at the same time in a matter of seconds. This invention incorporates all of it.”
The patent application has been published, and Bentley and Richardson are currently waiting for it to be examined and granted.
Bentley received the title of Conference High Jump Champion at Trinity University as a freshman. Richardson continues to coach high school track and field, and he has a few star athletes with one standout: Bentley’s younger brother, Ryan.
Bentley continues to keep in touch with Richardson, who coaches her via video chat.
“Hopefully, I’ll be graduating college with a U.S. patent,” she said. “Not many college students can say they accomplished that.”