In a hotel in suburban Baltimore, kids file into a conference room wearing Army-issued white lab coats and safety goggles. The middle schoolers are among the finalists in the U.S. Army’s annual eCYBERMISSION STEM fair—20 teams selected from more than 7,000 around the country for their problem-solving projects.
Before the big competition, they break into small groups for some training.
“We’re actually going to have you guys do some inventing,” instructor Ralph Tillinghast tells his group, passing out packs of colored clay. He asks the kids to spend a few minutes designing a product to make their daily lives better. Twelve-year-old Kaleb Ruthardt gets to work sculpting a tiny robot.
“At our school, we aren't allowed to carry around backpacks, so we have to carry about five or six binders,” he says. “My ideas is to make a binder carrier.”
Kaleb is from a small town in West Texas, near Lubbock. School officials are not concerned about what kids might keep in their backpacks, he says.
“The teachers have tripped on the backpacks before, because our classrooms are kind of small,” Kaleb explains.
Asked if the teachers might also trip over a robot, he pauses.
“Well, maybe we could leave it outside,” he says. “I don't know.”
He’s still working it out, and that’s part of the innovation process. The workshop is designed to teach kids how to take an idea, test it, patent it and bring it to market.
Yes, these are 12- and 13-year-olds.
“There's no royalties to the Army,” Tillinghast says. “It’s really to help them, just inspire them to know they can take their idea and bring it to the world.”
Tilllinghast directs the Collaboration Innovation Lab at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center — where the guns and bullets are designed. The Army has a big stake in inspiring the next generation of innovators, he says. The competition is one of several Army initiatives to promote science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.
“We can only hire U.S. citizens, so we need a pool in America of students who are competent in the STEM areas,” Tillinghast says.
To inspire those students, he shows them how to make a prototype using a 3-D printer and how to write a pitch sheet.
Shri Chander’s son Rushil is part of team from the Dallas area that developed an app to help first responders communicate in emergencies. She says it’s no wonder kids are motivated by the idea of commercial success.
“I think it’s all around them,” she says. “What they are watching on the news is ‘Oh, here’s a 12-year-old who showed up at the Apple developer conference because his app was rated No. 1 in the app store.’”
Chander herself is a scientist who now works on projects like the internet-connected car at AT&T.
“Pure science is sometimes so abstract that it's hard for 12-, 13-year-olds to kind of visualize it in their head,” she says. Apps and products they can touch and play with, Chander says, “that, I think, to them I think is more concrete.”
Several of the teams are already on their way to marketing their ideas.
Conglomerates DuPont and 3M have expressed interest in a more comfortable hazmat suit one team developed. Another team has filed a provisional patent application for its device to prevent drowsy driving. Kaleb Ruthardt’s group from West Texas designed a system for reclaiming wastewater from the fracking process. A Texas business has asked to check it out.
“It feels amazing, but we're doing this mostly for the environment,” says 11-year-old team member Dwayne Scott.
And for the thrill of making it to the finals, says his mom, Sharon Scott, who advised the team. They ended up beating out the hazmat suit to take home the top sixth-grade prize: $5,000 in savings bonds for each kid on the team.
“The importance was the idea, she says. “Bringing it to market, that's just the gravy.”