In Imagination First, Eric Liu and I discuss “‘challenge awards’” that “spur the creation of what does not yet exist” (171). The Ansari X Prize, for example, awarded $10 million in 2004 to the brilliant minds behind the first nongovernmental manned space flight of a reusable craft. Such challenges are exciting, to be sure, but they also have unfortunate limitations: their super-specific goals mean that other, more everyday problems remain unacknowledged, and their substantial scope makes it impossible for ordinary people who aren’t independently wealthy to compete. Which is exactly why I find the 2010 BI-LO Invention Convention and the Connecticut Invention Convention so refreshing.
The Greenville News reports that the twelfth annual BI-LO Invention Convention, sponsored by The Palmetto Bank and Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center Children’s Hospital, will be held at the BI-LO Center in Greenville, SC, on March 10th and 11th. In addition to other prizes, BI-LO, a regional grocery corporation, will provide a $1000 scholarship to one of the winners. The objective of the event is “to challenge the imagination, innovation, and creativity of students in grades 4-8 in the development of solutions to everyday issues.” In other words, participants don’t have to adhere to a particular agenda set forth by the convention’s organizers. Their simple (and very complex) task is: think of something that should exist in the world but doesn’t, and make it exist—build it! The beauty of this kind of challenge is that it involves more than just working toward a certain goal; it asks children to dream up new goals. And that’s the most imaginative activity imaginable.
The 27th annual Connecticut Invention Convention, which will be hosted by the University of Connecticut’s School of Engineering at the Gampel Pavilion in Storrs on May 1st, is in many ways similar to its South Carolina counterpart. The Connecticut event is open to students in grades K-8 and also showcases the work of UConn students and professors in order to inspire young people in attendance to pursue careers in engineering and the sciences.
What I like so much about the BI-LO and CT Invention Conventions, besides the fact that they wisely use friendly competition to get young people to think imaginatively, is that they create what Eric and I call “ecosystems of possibility.” The children’s inventions will no doubt be surprising and useful, but they are not nearly as important as the new communities of imaginative problem solvers that will emerge as a result of the events. Prize-givers and contest-holders, I call on you to steal a page from BI-LO and Connecticut’s playbook: challenge yourselves to come up with broader, more fruitful challenges!
Click here to view a video presentation about the 2009 BI-LO Invention Convention, hear a little bit about a few of the remarkable entries, and meet one of the young inventors. Click here to view a commercial for the CT Invention Convention.
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