Last weekend, I had the opportunity to participate in the Conrad "Spirit of Innovation" awards summit at NASA Ames as a judge in the 'Cyber Security' rounds. It was an excellent weekend and I was thoroughly pleased with the quality of the projects brought up, and the energy brought by the students themselves.
Now that the weekend is over, I have two items I think the competitors should know: first, why the
judging at times appeared to be very harsh, and second, why not winning
the competition perhaps wasn't as important as being in the
Item 1: Ouch! What's up with the judges?
The Conrad Foundation did a very good job recruiting skilled judges - i.e, experts in their fields. People who are used to taking ideas proposed to them and tearing them apart. When a vendor comes to my door and wants to sell something to the government, I consider it a civic duty to be very thorough in my assessment of whether their tool is worth buying. The salesperson sitting in front of me is not going to get any sympathy from me if they can't give me great answers about how their product works and why it's a good use of taxpayer money.
However, you (the students at the summit) are not vendors trying to sell the government a product. You're also not Ph.D students trying to pass thesis defense (yet), and you're not participants on American Idol. So a real problem for the judges is - how tough should we be on you?
On the one hand, it's tempting to say "These are high school students, they should be treated gently". That's especially easy for those of us judges who are also parents, and have a natural inclination to want to protect our (and others') kids. There's a lot to be said for the pure utility of grading and judging easily for you. After all, the goal of the Conrad folks is to stoke the fire you've lit for passion in science and technology, not to snuff it out under harsh criticism.
On the other hand, you're not just "high school kids". You're extremely bright people who happen to still be in high school. You've already made it this far into the summit, you've got a passion for science and technology and overall you've got thicker skins than some people would give you credit for. To deprive you of honest criticism of your projects would be a disservice. How do you learn without feedback, criticism, failure? One of the hard realities of science is that you really need to learn how to fail if you're going to succeed. Moreover, you do need to learn that these lessons are sometimes painful to the ego!
After some discussions with the event organizers, our group decided that we would be tough but fair - and that we wouldn't shy away from asking you difficult questions, but that if we thought our feedback would genuinely hurt, we'd save it for after the judging. From what I hear we may not have done perfectly, but there's a lesson for you in that too. Like you, we tried our best but didn't always hit the money 100% of the time.
In any case I assure you, our REAL goal is to help you all better yourselves as
students and young scientists; picking a "winner" of the summit is
honestly a secondary goal. With any luck we'll be working with you as colleagues sometime soon.
Item 2: Why did X win and I lost?
If you weren't one of the winning teams, this question is bound to have entered your head. And while the answer varies for every team and can't be answered here, I'd like to address the question itself anyway.
First, each category had a winner. They were judged by an objective set of standards provided by the Conrad folks, and they clearly threw in a lot of extra work and planning to get the edge. Fair and square, they were well prepared, did their research and knew their technology. That said, not being the winner does not make your team "losers". And yes, I realize that your bull!#$@ alarm just went off when I said that, and it sounds like a platitude. But hear me out.
Think about the prize for a moment. $5,000. That's a lot of money…. but not really. It goes by fast in start-up land and even faster in large business land. A large business might spend $5k this month buying printer paper. But it's not the money that's really the prize. The fact is, if you've gotten to the summit in the first place, you have a number of things going right in your life.
You're smart enough to be playing through to the finals, and either haven't succumbed to the pressure to NOT be smart, or are lucky enough to go to school in a place where that pressure is minimal. If the latter is the case then someone, and most likely multiple someones, cared enough about you to put you into that good school, probably at greater expense than they "needed" to go to. Someone, probably multiple folks, took the time to coach you, mentor you and chaperone you to the summit. Sometimes across state lines, sometimes across national borders. Did they take vacation from work to do so?
And if you didn't have any of those things, but you still made it to the finals of the Conrad Innovation Awards, you were born with more strength of character than I've seen in many of my adult colleagues.
What I'm getting at here is that you've already won many of the prizes that are not only more critical than the award at this summit, but are unachievable no matter how much money you have. Supportive family, friends, good teachers and coaches, individual character - these are the things that no amount of money you earn later in life can go back and retroactively purchase. And every team and individual I saw this weekend competing at the summit has some, if not all, of those prizes hanging around their neck already. When you step back and think of it, the $5k in seed money is really just paper. The critical thinking skills, entrepreneurship, knowledge and connections you're getting just from trying mean far more than the prize and will last far longer.
TL;DR - What's it all mean?
You guys were awesome and I'm looking forward to next year. Whether your project was #1 or got slammed, YOU have my genuine respect. Also, don't forget that while winning the competition certainly looks great - just participating in the finals will look great on your resume'. Be proud that you competed.