By Maker Corps Member Cole Houston, MIT/ Museum of Science, Boston
What do you get when you combine 270 high school students from around the world, thirty excited mentors, over one thousand rubber ducks, over a mile of duct tape, six fans with airplane propellers for blades, marathon blankets, and three hours to build something? You get EurekaFest.
EurekaFest is put on every year by the Lemelson-MIT Program and the Museum of Science, Boston. It is a weekend long celebration designed to empower a legacy of inventors through activities that inspire youth, honor role models, and encourage creativity and problem solving. It culminates in a competition hosted at the Museum. This year as a Maker Corps Member, I was able to have a close-up look at how perfectly the competition encapsulated the principles of designing and building something from scratch while also have a ton of fun.
Central to any competition is the challenge. This year, the challenge at EurekaFest was adapted and scaled up from an activity we facilitate on the museum floor. Teams had to design and build a device that would, powered by the wind from two fans on the ground, hover thirty feet in the air while carrying a payload of rubber ducks. Each team’s score was determined by the number of ducks that their device was carrying when it reached the target zone.
Each team met for the first time at 9 am and had three hours to build their device. They were given a box of materials (items like foam core, PVC pipe, trash bags, chicken wire, string, and—of course—duct tape) and a limited budget that they could spend on extra supplies at the materials store. The short build time made it necessary to test their designs often and quickly make revisions. I was fortunate to be stationed at a testing station, so I got to see the many designs that came through. It was gratifying to see teams catch onto the idea of rapid iteration and test their designs frequently. Whether they realized it or not, they were acting just like real engineers.
Of course, no competition is complete without a bit of fun. In order to bring some lightheartedness to the design process, halfway through the build time we gave each team a mystery item that they had to incorporate into their device. Each item was equally ridiculous and totally random. They included an inflatable salad bar, a window shade, a set of vinyl records, a snuggie and accompanying dog snuggie, and a set of barbeque utensils. Some teams were thrown off by this, while others managed to gracefully incorporate them into their designs. While many of the items initially seemed awkward, many later turned out to be the key to a successful design. This was a powerful lesson in the value of found items and the unexpected places inspiration can come from.
After the prize ceremony, there was a finale in which thousands of rubber ducks fell three stories from the ceiling of the museum’s main hall because, in the words of our MC, “what goes up must come down.” In a way, that finale underscored what the entire event was about. We made up the finale using items we already had and things we could purchase for very cheap. It was developed the week of the competition in a burst of last-second inspiration. EurekaFest was about invention. It was about taking the ordinary materials around you and using them to make something grand and successful. It was about taking ordinary high school teens and helping them see themselves as designers and engineers. It was about showing them that they have the power in themselves to make and create. Were we successful? Looking at the smiles on their faces at the end, I think we were.
Maker Ed is proud to support and share the work of our Maker Corps Members. For more documentation of the projects being developed and executed by the Maker Corps Members stationed at the Museum of Science in Boston, see: http://makeratmos.tumblr.com/