Friday, April 27, 2007

20th anniversary of the Tech Challenge

The Tech Challenge is an open ended design contest for kids in grades 5 through 12. The Tech Challenge is run by the Tech Museum of San Jose and is in its 20th year. The Tech chooses real life problems like floods, forest fires or space missions and develops a model problem which has some elements of the original problem. However, the model problem is constructed in such a way as to allow multiple solutions limited only by the creativity of the entering teams. This year's challenge is titled Mission to Mars.

I have been associated with the Challenge since 2004, when Melissa McAlexander, who runs the Tech Challenge, roped me into volunteering as an advisor to teams from Lowell Elementary in San Jose. The challenge that year was Pick a Pike. There were about 30 kids from Lowell in our group assisted by 5-6 advisors. Most of these kids had never entered a design contest, let alone win a prize. We spent about 10 to 12 weeks with the kids helping them understand the challenge and getting them to think about ways of solving them. The kids formed about 5 teams and played a bit, fought a bit, and fooled around a whole lot. In the end, though, they did come up with some rather clever solutions which caught the pike - plastic fish floating in a tub of water. When 3 out of the 5 teams won prizes, their joy knew no bounds. For the advisors it was an exhilirating experience.

The same year, my son Arjun and his friends, who were in Cupertino High decided that they also wanted to participate in the Tech Challenge and I ended up being nominated their advisor too. This was quite a different kettle of fish. High school kids rarely want any guidance or advice. They just wanted money for the supplies and to be driven to places where they could buy stuff. Their design was a catapult which looked like a medieval flame thrower. It caused great excitement among the audience in its operation because it was powered with bungee cords and tended to be dramatic in its launch, when it threw a net into the tub to catch the fish. Strangely enough, they went on to win a prize that year for the "Most Courageous Team".

In 2005 the challenge was Battle the Blaze. Arjun and his friends put together yet another medieval looking device and and again won an award for "Simple Elegance". The team had renamed themselves as The S.A.G.A of the Flaming Chickens. One of the team members designed some rather cool T-shirts for the team and another dressed up in a yellow chicken suit for the event. In 2006 the challenge was Fight the Flood. The team stuck with the same name and came up with a strange manually driven conveyor belt which scooped the sand. They got an award for Teamwork. All along that was what they excelled at.

They have a team again in 2007, with most of the original members. They have always considered themselves "tech challenged" and worked at coming up with solutions low on technology and high on creativity. Rather, odd for Silicon Valley kids, at least the technology part. Over the years I have seen them goof off, fight, slack off, put in last minute efforts and come up with crazy ideas. But, in the end, they have enjoyed the process and learnt a lot from it.
The team has always worked well together and enjoyed solving the challenge together, but I notice a definite change in their attitude towards engineering and technology. They seem to have developed a genuine liking for it. Even my 9 year old, who is a constant, and sometimes unwelcome, supporter and critic at their team meetings is inspired by their efforts. Truly, the Tech has done something right in inspiring creativity, teamwork and a love for engineering and design in kids. Certainly from all accounts in the press, the US is falling behind in technology education. But, in my experience from the last four years, the Tech Challenge seems to have found the magic recipe for teaching creativity and engendering a love of engineering in kids.

Tomorrow is D-Day at the Tech Museum where the kids will bring their devices for the Challenge. It is bound to be a high energy and fun day as in past years. I am looking forward to it. Regardless of whether Arjun's team wins, I am sure they will have a lot of fun and so will I. For me, it is the last year I will be part of their team as they participate in the Tech Challenge. Its my way of rejuvenation and bonding with my son and his friends before they go off to college. Fortunately, Krishnan, our younger son will be able to sign up for the Tech Challenge in a couple of years, to help keep me continually young. :-)


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