Clemson University Honors College; College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences

Honors students win statewide Pay It Forward competition


Three Clemson Honors students split a $5,000 scholarship in a statewide competition called Pay It Forward, sponsored by South Carolina’s electric cooperatives.

Bioengineering majors Micah Jordan and Trina Pham worked with Mechanical Engineering major Aiden Tombuelt to design a series of mobile dental clinics, called the Party Enamel, that would provide routine dental care to people in rural communities throughout the state.

I am so proud of Micah, Trina and Aiden for pooling their talents and finding a solution that can really make a difference in the lives of people living in rural communities throughout the state. They demonstrate that working together to make the world a better place is what Clemson Honors students do best.

William Lasser, executive director of the Clemson University Honors College

The group competed against 16 students from honors programs at Clemson, S.C. State University and the University of South Carolina.

All three students hail from Upstate South Carolina. Jordan is from Easley, Pham from Mauldin and Tombuelt from Spartanburg. Their project idea came from Pham’s personal experience. When she was growing up, Pham’s elementary school had mobile dentists provide dental care to students who didn’t have access to those services, including her.

“This project made me reflect heavily on the various hardships low-income families face,” said Pham. “I knew South Carolinians deserved much greater care and accessibility than what is currently provided.”

Their submission provided design considerations for the mobile units, opportunities for expanded community dental health programming, and also identified possible partner organizations and potential funding sources.

“We worked together by assigning different tasks to each member based on each other’s strengths, as we each have different backgrounds,” said Tombuelt. “As a mechanical engineer, for example, I was interested in the bus itself and how we would power it.”

They first tested their idea through a College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences program called Grand Challenge Scholars (GCS), a nationally recognized National Academy of Engineering program that prepares the next generation of engineers and scientists to address this century’s most pressing global challenges. The program focuses on developing well-rounded scholars who strive to be ethical thought leaders and put scholarship into action to create value and have a positive impact on society. 

“GCS, and our wonderful advisor Dr. Dancz, really inspired the passion behind the whole project,” said Jordan. “As engineers, our skills are not just limited to math and science. We are out of the box thinkers who desire to work together to leave a lasting impact and address the grand challenges facing society, starting in our local community.”

They used the feedback they gained from their Grand Challenge Scholar experience to further refine their plan for the Pay It Forward competition.

There are no limits to what our students can accomplish when they discover a shared purpose, and Trina, Aiden and Micah are evidence of that. These students put their scholarship and personal experiences into action, creating a solution that, if implemented, would be certain to make an impact on smaller communities throughout the state without access to dental care and continue to advance Clemson’s land grant mission.

Claire Dancz, Faculty Director of the Grand Challenge Scholars program

Competition judges, which included U.S. Rep. James Clyburn and state Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman, were impressed by the quality of the project submission. Although judges were not required to provide comments as they scored the entries, one felt compelled to write that the project was an “outstanding entry and a worthy idea” that had the planning required to get the project off the ground and make it sustainable.

The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina, the trade association for the state’s consumer-owned electric co-ops, created the Pay It Forward program to find new and creative ways of addressing challenges facing rural communities. They plan to run the competition again this fall and hope to hear ideas from even more honors students.

“The state’s 20 consumer-owned electric co-ops serve mostly rural communities, so they witness first-hand the challenges those communities face daily,” said Lindsey Smith, the organization’s Vice President for Education. “Since some of South Carolina’s brightest young people attend its honors colleges, the co-ops recognize those students represent a tremendous untapped resource for helping us solve long-standing problems across the state.”

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