It’s been widely reported that we’ve fallen far behind in STEM education, that our children just aren’t proficient at math, science, technology,or engineering. Everyone from President Obama to William Bennett have lamented our situation. But to step inside the FIRST 2012 Championship in Saint Louis last week, you would never know it. Here, thousands of kids gathered to celebrate and compete in robotics and whether chatting to the competitors or overhearing conversations, it’s very apparent that the state of STEM is well and good among FIRST attendees.
While STEM proficiency is expected among older kids where self-selection has had time to reveal those with interests, some of the more impressive and surprising examples can be found among the younger participants. The Junior FIRST Lego League boasted plenty of projects that impressed, from a safe strawberry farm and factory from a Florida team called the Building Lions to an ingenious sushi concept that used an infrared light to judge sushi’s temperature and then rotated dishes out of inventory when they became too warm. The sushi project was developed by a team from Hong Kong called KEI-FOOK SuperKids.
But the single most impressive project of the Championship was from a group of four girls from Rochester, New York, called the Hippie Pandas, aged 11-14, faced with the need to develop a project based on food. One of the coaches of the Hippie Pandas had a cousin in the Peace Corps and found out that, because women in Nicaragua were drinking unpasteurized milk, they also experienced a higher rate of miscarriages and disease. The Hippie Pandas took this as a challenge.
With help from their coach and contacts at the Rochester Institute of Technology, the girls came up with a solution. Using common materials, they came up with a solution for the pasteurization problem. Laying aluminum foil over a piece of cardboard or woven mat, a reflector is made. A receptacle is painted black to absorb heat and filled with unpasteurized milk.
Initially the girls used a thermometer to monitor when the temperature reached an acceptable temperature but, realizing thermometers might be tough to come by in Nicaragua, they came up with an alternative solution: bee’s wax. If using a thermometer, the milk is pasteurized after 30 minutes at 145 degrees or when the bee’s wax is fully melted.
The Hippie Panda’s awesome project is already in use – and hopefully saving lives – in Nicaragua already and the girls were approached and asked to implement their invention in one other country during the FIRST Championship. There have been other examples of teams who have walked away from FIRST with patented inventions, but when your project saves lives … well, that’s not only amazing, but incredibly impressive, as well.