By Jeffrey Rindskopf
All photos courtesy of C. B. Bell, III.
Picture this: an earthquake strikes in the middle of a weekday, decimating Seattle’s telecommunications systems in just a few terrifying tremors. Even worse, if much less likely, a horde of undead zombies come crawling out from newly-created fissures in the earth and manage to bite one of your dearest companions.
That’s the apocalyptic scenario four groups of high schoolers from Federal Way’s Technology Access Foundation (TAF) Academy had to respond to for the Comcast NBCUniversal Innovation Challenge. Groups of four students from different grades at the STEM-focused public school had to develop a preparedness plan for reestablishing communications and receiving medical care given a hypothetical budget of $500.
Teams presented their distinct responses Friday at Comcast Technology Solutions to win the prize of $4,000, divided into $1,000 scholarships for each group member. The presentations marked an end to the school-year-long challenge, in which Comcast engineering professionals visited classrooms three to four times to act as mentors and answer any questions about the Challenge prompt.
Mentors sat alongside additional Comcast employees and a group of six judges from varying local organizations to see their proteges’ months of work come to fruition in a succession of 15-minute PowerPoint presentations. Though each presentation retained the same format—beginning with a review of the scenario and concluding with reflections on what the students learned from the Challenge—they varied wildly in content, as each team took their problem-solving in a unique direction.
First, Team Impavido proposed purchasing an outernet lantern to provide internet connectivity and a mesh network to communicate with one another while in transit. In contrast, Team ARJJ planned to spend their budget solely on food and fuel, dissembling street-sign solar panels to charge their phones and then retrieving a drone from one of their homes to establish communication with the nearest hospital.
Next, Team Dragonfly similarly incorporated a drone into their response, though they planned to build one from scratch with enough strength to carry their wounded team member to the hospital. Finally, Team JACZ supplemented their PowerPoint with leaflets outlining a solution they described as “more preemptive rather than reactive.”
Essentially, they designed three kinds of disaster preparedness kits—called JACZ Boxes—including items within their budget such as water, walkie-talkies, flashlights, iodine tablets, a life raft, and a HAM radio. In the absence of internet connectivity, they developed their own Wi-Fi system using microwave frequencies, illustrated in an impressive flow-chart that went well over this writer’s head. Tellingly, the team member responsible for designing the system said he could easily see himself doing such a thing as a profession.
After each presentation, the judges asked questions to ensure the students had thought through every problem that might interfere with their plans—and impressively, for the most part, they had.
A one-hour lunch break followed the presentations, during which time the students and employees mingled and the judges remained cooped up in the conference room trying to agree on a winner. Given the strength of the students’ responses, they can be forgiven for going a little overtime.
Before making the final announcement, the judges take turns commending the students on everything from their PowerPoint graphics to their attention-to-detail in budgeting and storytelling. Regardless of the winner, they said, every team had applied creativity and practicality to this rather outlandish scenario, demonstrating the critical-thinking skills necessary to solve real problems with technological innovation.
“I’m 100% convinced I could not have done in high school what you guys did here today,” said Mike Horwitz, a judge and Vice President of Engineering at Comcast Technology Solutions, a statement with which I’m inclined to agree.
Then finally, Team JACZ was announced as the winning group. One Comcast employee confessed that their plan to distribute and use preparedness kits, in addition to microwave-facilitated Wi-Fi, is remarkably similar to Comcast’s own strategy in case of disaster.
The winning students collected their checks and in their excitement thanked the entire room for this opportunity. The remaining teams received ribbons and sparkling glass paperweights as consolation prizes, before the event ended with a fervent round of applause in recognition of the students’ hard work.