- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Suppose you read about a competition in which you would be challenged to make something useful out of everyday objects in 40 minutes for a test of your entrepreneurial skills?

The Marian Koshland Science Museum, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences, may have overstated the case a bit when it set out during Global Entrepreneurship Week last week to invite the public to participate in just such an event. The “something useful” to be made out of common materials was nothing less than a robot — a miniature robot, to be sure — to be fashioned from paper clips, a battery case and a small vibrating motor like those found in cell phones. A glue gun and soldering iron were available on site.

Participants young and old immediately sat down to work, forming teams and heeding the words of emcee Adam Koeppel of MakeDC — a hobbyist group — who warned that “the real challenge is how to build the legs.” Spindly little legs had to be made of paper clips twisted into an array of forms to give shape to the toy object.

The real purpose, too, was to have fun and see which of the volunteers’ tiny inventions would travel fastest down a simple ramp made of a few boards, cardboard and sandpaper. Their reward? Soft drinks, nibbles and a museum T-shirt. Laura Chitty, 16, a junior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, wasn’t disappointed because she and a colleague would qualify for school credit just for taking part.

That isn’t to underestimate their work. Fledgling entrepreneurs taking part that evening in the museum’s Innovation Program: Test Your Imagination were part of a much larger scheme going on around the globe that was intended to draw attention to the importance of creativity among young people everywhere — thousands of large and small events taking place in 77 countries with some 5 million people taking part.

Global Entrepreneurship Week — www.unleashingideas.org — was sponsored nationally by the Kauffman Foundation and the Acton Foundation for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Kauffman also joined the list of global sponsors promoting the many apprentice-style competitions.

Included in the week’s events was the worldwide Stanford University Global Innovation Tournament, which had held similar tournaments in the past and was the model for this year’s first-ever ambitious global program. The Koshland Science Museum had entered a team in the Stanford challenge that is believed to be the only high school team among entries.

Patrice Legro, the museum director, had the idea of forming a team composed of three students each from the Academy of Science of Loudoun County Public High Schools and three students from the Hwa Chong Institution of Singapore, both schools that have an affiliation with her institution.

That upped the difficulty, considering that the two teams had to communicate mainly by e-mail across several time zones and not only agree to build “something of value” out of plastic water bottles, but also create a short video explaining the project on YouTube. “Value” could be interpreted in any way as long as firm ideas supported their creation.

Alex Sack, Carter Huffman and Fiona Ritchey, two juniors and a senior from Loudoun interested in science and engineering, “needed a combination of patience and diplomacy for the job,” according to George Wolfe, the academy’s director. In addition to imagination, they also needed the ability to tell a story.

The resulting creation was what he calls “a kind of diplomacy raft,” the point of which “was how can we use a bottle to communicate across cultures - the old note-in-a-bottle thing.”

Initially, he says, his students wanted to poll people on the street about what America meant to them, but the students from Singapore objected, saying people there aren’t accustomed to being approached that way in public.

Should the Loudoun students not place in the Stanford competition, team members received a sweetener on robot night: a $1,000 scholarship given to each of them by the museum for furthering their education.

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