Much like with literacy, when it comes to engaging young people in science, technology, engineering and math, there’s one strategy that seems to hold weight: Get ‘em early.
“You don’t make your kid into a concert pianist by sitting them in front of a piano when they are 18 years old,” said Eben Upton, co-creator of the Raspberry Pi microcomputer and head of the Raspberry Pi Foundation.
Upton, a Cambridge, U.K.-based Broadcom technical director and an advocate for teaching computer programming to students, believes that engaging them at the right moment — with the right tools— can lead them to master critical STEM skills and launch successful careers.
“Early exposure is really important. If kids find something that grabs at their imagination, they tend to make very fast progress,” he said. “I think the same is true for engineering and computer science.”
Those themes are set to play a big role next week, when the top 30 2014 Broadcom MASTERS finalists face off in the nation’s capital. During a week of intense competition, where the finalists are challenged to demonstrate their skills and teamwork in STEM, they will also take a deep dive into coding with a Raspberry Pi workshop.
The contenders, who have been selected from thousands of Broadcom MASTERS nominees across the country, are competing for a chance to win the $25,000 Samueli Prize.
Upton, who will deliver the keynote speech at the awards gala, said he’s set to talk about the origin of the spectacularly popular Raspberry Pi, a $25 bare-bones computer that’s sold millions around the world.
Based on a Broadcom processor, the Raspberry Pi sprung from Upton’s tinkering with hardware and software and his realization that students in the U.K. were lacking critical computer programming skills.
“When I was a kid, I had access to all of these great toys and equipment,” he said. “We have so many good engineers at Broadcom because we have captured a few generations of employees who grew up tinkering since they were eight.”
That drive to tinker and experiment — a hallmark of a MASTERS finalist — makes for some impressive projects.
Some standouts include: Raghav Ganesh, 12, of San Jose, Calif., who engineered a low-cost, high-tech add-on device that helps visually impaired people better navigate with a cane; Sahar Khashayar, 14,of Laguna Niguel, Calif., who used her hardware and programming skills to explore whether a computer can spot the early signs of a wildfire better than humans; and Alden Giedraitis, 15, of Byfield, Mass., who created an “Artificial Intelligence Platform” that aims to empower a robot to make its own autonomous navigation choices.
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“Where were the kids like this when I was in school?” Upton joked. “Seeing the work that some of these finalists have done, some of which is good enough to be published in scientific journals, that shows the real strength of the science fair system.”
About the Competition
Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars), a program of Society for Science & the Public (SSP), is the premier middle school science and engineering fair competition. SSP-affiliated science fairs around the country nominate the top 10 percent of sixth, seventhand eighth grade students to enter this prestigious competition. After submitting the online application, 300 semifinalists are selected and 30 finalists are brought to Washington, D.C. for the final round of competition. Finalists present their research projects and compete in team hands-on STEM challenges to demonstrate their skills in critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.
The 2014 MASTERS competition winners will be announced on October 28.
Follow coverage of the finalists’ trip to Washington, D.C., on Broadcom’s Facebook and Twitter, and Society for Science and the Public’s Facebook and Twitter. Winners are set to be announced October 28th during an awards ceremony that will feature Broadcom Technical Director and Raspberry Pi inventor Eben Upton as keynote speaker.