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Because a professor was indifferent to his students’ first project idea, many people around the world will have light at night.

This week at the Clinton School of Public Service we got to hear Jessica Matthews, co-founder and CEO of Uncharted Play, an organization that mixes fun with solving the world’s problems. She and her colleagues developed a soccer ball that is a portable generator — thirty minutes of play will power a LED light for three hours.

Four years ago, in her junior year at Harvard, Matthews had a class assignment to come up with a need, and a solution that includes both art and science. So Matthews and three other women, none with an engineering background, formed a project team. Upon hearing their first idea about mobile health records, “our professor said, Meh,” recalls Matthews. They had to come up with another concept. “So we locked ourselves in a room and started throwing out ideas.”

The need they identified was the quarter of the world’s people who don’t have reliable electricity. Because they wanted to start with something people already enjoy, they thought about soccer: why couldn’t a ball capture kinetic energy, and solve the power need?

Though told by engineers it wouldn’t work, with just high school physics, they built a prototype, and the sOccket ball worked well enough to pass the course and encourage them to develop a better version. Later, when they tested it in South Africa, they found that for kids having a soccer ball that created power was like magic.

Of course, the sOccket itself is just the beginning. Learn more about how it is distributed, its educational value and other plans at Uncharted Play.

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