Broadcom MASTERS

A short one today: I’m in Washington DC at Broadcom MASTERS, with the kids who produced the USA’s best science fair projects, and I’ll be heading back to the UK after a brief sleep. Thirty middle school kids are chosen from a field of hundreds of thousands for their exceptional work, and they spend a week at Broadcom MASTERS doing group tasks, workshops, careers events, serious science projects – and this year, meeting President Obama and getting a private tour of the White House, and having asteroids named after them. I’ve had an incredible time here. These kids are pre- and early-teens, and they’re producing work which would gain high marks at undergraduate level. They’re also great fun to hang out with and talk to. Smart is always interesting, and these guys have smart by the bucketful.

Yellow Team work on their Raspberry Pi project

Eben and I were here to work with the MASTERS group on Raspberry Pi sessions and to talk about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers – we had a crazy morning today teaching some Python to one of the smartest groups of kids it’s been my pleasure to work with. We assigned an adult to each of six teams, and each team came out of the session with a hand-coded version of Wormy (Snake, to those who remember the old Nokia phones). We saw multiplayer versions, snakes that got shorter as they aged, magic teleporting golden apples, apple-shooting trees, power-ups that changed the speed of the game, power-ups reversing the controls: all this in a group where only about a third of the kids had ever done any programming before, and only three had any Python experience. One of the things I love about Python is the way there’s no learning hump that you need to endure before you can start using it. The language looks like English: it’s easy to see what commands and variables do, because they’re written in text you recognise. With only a very little guidance and a little sample code, the teams were rocketing through developing six very different games.

Black Team hard at work modifying Snake. Krystal, who has a Raspberry Pi blog, is second from the left. (Click the picture to visit her website.)

There’s such a breadth of enthusiasm here, and a wonderful feeling that the MASTERS teams are meeting other kids who feel the same way they do about science for the very first time. I’m humbled to meet middle school students who are smarter than I am: Hannah, your interplanetary magnetic fields project gave me goose bumps. Caroline, your project on the health of bee hives is something I’m going to be talking about to my colleague Emma (who happens to be a PhD entomologist) as soon as I get back to the UK; and Julie, I am not sure whether your science fair work on superconductors or your spare time work making video game peripherals out of cardboard, tin foil, a couple of drumsticks and a Raspberry Pi are more impressive. (You have my email address – please mail me, because I’d love to feature your setup here!)

If you’d like to read more about the work that brought everybody to DC, there’s a handy PDF you can download, with short descriptions of each science fair project. I recommend it. It’s kind of humbling.

Congratulations to River and Eitan for getting the Samueli Foundation and the Marconi/Samueli awards for your projects. And we’re really pleased to see Krystal Horton and Sean Weber receive Rising Stars awards, which means they will go on to represent Broadcom MASTERS at Intel ISEF (the enormous, 70-country version of Broadcom MASTERS) in May. Keen readers may recognise Krystal’s name: she has a Raspberry Pi blog. She’s only eleven, and she’s brilliant; Eben and I both had a great time with her. Krystal’s project was about oak borer beetle infestations: another thing I’m going to be discussing in great depth with Emma when we get back to the office.

I really loved meeting all the participants this week. I’ve said it before: we in the UK miss out by not having a formal culture of school science fairs. Science fairs give kids the opportunity to transcend their school learning; to follow their own interests to an astonishingly high level, bounded only by their own ability – which is often exceptional; and to broaden their horizons early on. Huge thanks to all the participants, and to all the parents who took time out to come to DC. We had a great time with you, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you accomplish next!