No screens, no candies, no toys, no instant gratification. Thousands of kids at The Tech Challenge 2017 wanted something more. They wanted to try their hand at being engineers.
On April 29, a few colleagues from Palo Alto Networks and I volunteered to be judges at The Tech Museum of Innovation’s signature event, held in the heart of Silicon Valley in downtown San Jose, California. As judges, we had the honor of interacting with fourth- to sixth-graders. They captivated us with their approach to engineering, problem-solving and iterative experimentation. There is something spectacular about interacting with kids who are so passionate about innovatively combining technology and building with their hands, rather than interacting with technology only through computers and mobile devices.
This year’s The Tech Challenge centered on the theme of “Rock the Ravine.” Months prior to the event, students in grades 4–12 were presented with the challenge to design a device to help explorers cross an ice field with multiple ravines. More than 2,500 students responded to this year’s challenge with innovation, teamwork and healthy doses of creativity.
Insights From The Tech Challenge
By spending a day with the young developers, each of the other volunteer judges and I walked away with valuable lessons. Here are a few of mine:
- Don’t assume there aren’t developers among our elementary school students. One of the most impressive teams I met was two sixth-grade girls, “The Flaming Firebirds” (seen going through the judging process in the photo below), who built their project from the ground up – and hacked technology to make it work the way they needed. They custom wrote the code necessary for the project to come together, and they won “Best Overall 1st Place” (for all of Grade 6) through their planning, ingenuity and creativity!
- All kids should be encouraged to get involved. We should encourage as many kids as possible to get involved in events like this, even if engineering isn’t an area of passion. The spirit of what this event is about builds a strong foundation for a variety of professions that look well beyond STEM. Participating children were able to hone valuable life skills like imaginative problem-solving, prototyping, iterating, failing fast and recovering, documenting failures and successes, sharing responsibility, paying attention to safety, setting goals, planning projects, researching, and so much more that will serve them well no matter where their paths lead them.
- Adults and parents can benefit too. As a father of three girls, I am constantly struggling with the question, “What kind of projects should I do with the kids that are fun and engaging, and will help them later in life?” The Tech Challenge gives parents a structured means to bring their children along on a journey that is rewarding, challenging and teaches fundamentals that are core to problem-solving.
The Tech Challenge started 30 years ago and has been inspiring kids to find solutions to real-world problems, such as harnessing the wind to move water to people who need it – and even beyond Earth, such as creating solutions to deploy scientific instruments from spacecraft to asteroids. The raw wonder of young minds is refreshing. The final products these students have developed are truly remarkable.
I look forward to competing in next year’s The Tech Challenge with my girls, and I know they will absolutely love it. To our future innovators: let the learning begin!
[Palo Alto Networks Research Center]