Sunday, October 26, 2008

Lighting Lamps

Tomorrow is the Indian festival of Diwali (also called Deepavali), which, literally, means festival of lights. The festival symbolizes the victory of good over evil or light over darkness and many Indians celebrate the festival by lighting lamps. This year, I have the rare opportunity to light some lamps of a special kind. My younger son , Krishnan, and his friends have asked me to be their advisor for the Tech Challenge 2009, an open ended design contest sponsored by the Tech Museum of San Jose.

My first experience with the Tech Challenge was through a volunteer group solicited by the Tech Museum to advise kids in an afterschool program at Lowell Elementary School in San Jose. I wrote about that experience last April. It truly was one of the best experiences of my life. Four of the six teams from Lowell won prizes that year and many of those kids had never done anything like that before or won anything in their lives. They worked well as teams, had fun and learned to solve an open ended design problem and delivered under pressure on the day of the Challenge. I am certain that at least a good number of those kids will make science and engineering a significant part of their lives.

My elder son, Arjun, and his high school friends who decided to join the contest in 2004 on a whim, also won a prize. Arjun and his friends considered themselves "technically challenged" in that they did not have serious engineering or scientific skills. But, after that year they signed up for the Tech Challenge all the years they were in high school and interestingly, won a prize of some kind every year. I am positive that this had a significant impact on their views on science and engineering. Arjun switched from being a biology major this year at UC Davis to being a biomedical engineering major. He chose UC Davis because of the school's reputation for engineering and their penchant for design contests.

Today there is much concern among many industry leaders such as Bill Gates, Dr. Craig Barrett and others on America's leadership in technology and the need to foster an interest in science and technology in America's youth. The last few years have shown me that this is less a function of the money thrown at the problem, but more a function of driving motivation. If you can ignite a spark of interest in one child, you could drive a chain reaction in many other lives. I am looking forward to this year's Tech Challenge. To me, it offers an opportunity to rejuvenate as I watch innovation in action and the whole host of possibilities it drives in a new generation. Happy Diwali !


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