Google is sponsoring its second annual global science fair for students aged 13-18. This competition calls for the “brightest young scientists from around the world to submit interesting, creative projects that are relevant to the world today.”
I have always found science fair and similar intellectual challenges to be incredibly inspiring. Falling into a rut of thinking is so easy, and we don’t even realize it’s happened. We have to solve many problems every day in our work and personal lives that we learn certain patterns for quickly analyzing the situation. We build up a mental file cabinet of solutions that we draw from regularly. That serves us well, so we continue to do this. Less often, though, do we challenge those previously successful patterns and innovate new solutions. One of the things that make science fairs and other student competitions wonderful to observe is that the young participants typically haven’t had so much time to develop ingrained patterns of thinking. Consequently, they think about problems in unique and inspiring ways.
For five years, I managed a student technical writing competition that invited entries from students in the same age as those invited to participate in the Google Science Fair. Most of the competition entries were papers from science fairs or advanced science projects that the students had participated in. Participants, young as they were, were thinking about difficult problems and coming up with new ideas for researching and solving them. A few examples of the wide-ranging topics include cancer research, CAPTCHA effectiveness, developing artificial muscles, exploring deep sea vents, and risk factors for falling in the elderly. I was always amazed at the great ideas, some of them incredibly practical and relevant. I’ll be checking back to the Google Science Fair site in anticipation of similar inspiration.
Another reason to be aware of an activity like this is that participants are developing innovative solutions that might have relevance to your work. One possible way of tapping into this is to participate in a local science fair. You might be surprised what great ideas students at schools in your area are coming up with. Some student competitions, such as FIRST, encourage industry experts to get directly involved by sponsoring and mentoring entrants.
Another possibility is engaging the participants directly. Internships can cultivate talent and certainly create goodwill with educators and the community, but few companies approach student work as ways to really innovate and grow. The top three winners of the Google Science Fair 2011 won internships at CERN, Google, and LEGO – organizations that understand creativity and innovation. However, a lot more than just these three smart, motivated students were involved. Over 10,000 students from around the world submitted entries. Of those, 60 semi-finalists were selected. What might an intern from this group of students offer your company? What kinds of problems do you face that could use fresh ideas and novel thinking? What would an intern with demonstrated experience in problem solving as submitted to this event offer your organization?
Lastly, consider this an opportunity to challenge yourself to break familiar patterns and ways of looking at problems. Although you might not be able to submit your entry, apply the tools (like the Educator’s toolkit) and information on the site to a difficult problem you face. Create an “submission” based on the template. You may find that the process knocks you out of your usual problem-solving rut and leads you to some new ways of thinking.