(TNS) — Eight students from the Riverpoint Academy in Spokane, Wash., won a grant from MIT to build a device that will help refugees power portable electronics. The project is a manifestation of the school’s focus on student-driven learning.

The students are inventors, tech whizzes, accountants and, most obviously, teenagers. And they’re focused on a serious problem. Consider refugees in Syria, who rely on their cellphones to contact friends and family yet lack the ability to reliably charge their devices.

These students think they have a possible solution, and MIT is willing to invest $8,600 to help them prove it.

“We’re not just creating a product that’s going to sit in a room, said junior Cierra Dalzell. “It’s going to help refugees.”

That helpful product is a small portable generator that will power cellphones and other small electronic devices. The eight students are designing the generator to be about the size of a Nalgene water bottle, cost less than $100 and weigh less than 1 pound. The idea, said senior Liam Maddox, the communications manager for the team, is to convert the mass of a heavier object, like a rock, into useable electrical energy.

The students attend Riverpoint Academy, a choice school in the Mead School District. While the school is focused on science, technology, engineering and math, it’s really designed for many different types of learners, said principal Moleena Harris.

“All that we do here is connect to real world problems,” Harris said.

The team of eight submitted their proposal to the Lemelson-MIT Program. The Riverpoint Academy team was one of 14 InvenTeams nationwide accepted. As part of their selection they received $8,600 to help fund their invention. They will present their final product in June at MIT.

Their initial proposal, the one that won them the grant money, was for a power generating exhaust system. The system would have sat over indoor cooking fires and converted dangerous gases to usable energy. However, Maddox said as they did more research they realized that there were already similar devices on the market. So they changed direction.

“We realized we weren’t going to be bringing anything new to the table,” Maddox said.

The students are juniors or seniors. Each student is responsible for specific tasks, although those responsibilities aren’t set in stone. Some of the students deal with the technical designs; others manage the project’s budget.

“A lot of us are planning on going into jobs very similar to this,” Maddox said.

Although there are two teachers, John Marshall and Regan Drew, they function more as advisers.

“That’s all them,” Marshall said. “It’s hard for us to stay out of stuff sometimes.”

The project is a reflection of the philosophy of Riverpoint Academy, Harris said. The goal of the school is to teach students how to solve problems.

“Every project here is a collaborative project,” Harris said. “This really is about getting kids outside of themselves.”

Empathy is a key component in the design process as well, she said. The projects the students are working on focus on the users’ needs. While deciding what to design and build, the students had to research what the refugee experience is like and what their needs are.

Of course there is the chance of failure, said senior Jared Timme. If their concept doesn’t pan out for some reason, he said the team is ready to “pivot” and turn the project into something else.

The students said it can be difficult at times to keep themselves focused. In the end, however, they’re more invested in the project because it’s fully theirs.

©2015 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.