Student Reflection - April 30, 2014
Ever since I found out about the Weekly Innovation Challenge (WIC), it has been one of the highlights of my week. Each week, a few dozen students group into teams of three in the McDonnell Douglas rotunda where they face whatever tasks the organizers might devise. In my experience, the challenges have spanned a wide range, covering everything from engineering to entrepreneurship to dexterity. As a graduating senior, this was my last challenge, so I am using this final reflection to not only talk about today’s event but also highlight some of the lessons the WIC has shown me.
Today’s challenge: While many challenges require significant planning and critical evaluation by competitors, today’s event, “The Angry Birds Challenge,” gave us a more relaxing, skill-based contest. Similar to the popular video game, teams used a large slingshot to launch stuffed birds at three sets of cardboard and plastic structures in an effort to knock down the stuffed pig targets. Points were scored for each pig knocked off, weighting pigs hit in early attempts more than late ones. After each round, 2-3 teams were eliminated. Given the opportunity to practice, my team chose me to target the birds while they supported the sling. In the first and second rounds, we easily led the competition by knocking out 3-4 of the targets on each first shot. While that got us into the final round, our luck ran out soon after. Another team managed to topple the last structure, but our birds bounced right off it. Still, we had fun even if we didn’t win today, and it was really satisfying to hear the other competitors cheer in awe of our superior slinging in the first two rounds.
The WIC brings people together: Ever since I started doing the WIC, I have come into contact with many people both inside and outside of my department. I often find the best strategy is to come without a team in mind, because you never know what strengths new teammates might have that could be useful for the situation. Furthermore, it has also really shown me the diversity of our SLU community I might not see as clearly otherwise. In the past few semesters I have teamed up with international students, people from all majors from business to aerospace engineering, and even younger or older students from my own department who I might not normally meet. Today was a good example because I, a senior biochemistry student, was on a team with two graduate students with very different backgrounds.
Ideas should tell a story: Often, the WIC takes on an entrepreneurship dimension through activities like designing and pitching a new product or presenting a new logo for a company. From experience, I have seen that teams only succeed in these challenges if they can not only create an idea but also effectively convey it to the judges. In a classroom setting, merely knowing the material and understanding concepts are often sufficient, but giving a judged pitch really offers hands-on experience in teaching others and self-expression. Personally, I have noticed myself being a much more effective communicator about my research after being put in many WIC situations where I needed to make an idea and present it under pressure.
Any experience can be valuable in unexpected ways: The WIC changes every week, challenging teams to build unconventional structures, guess the identity of a sound or create a logo. As a result, my training in biochemistry does not usually directly apply, but my experiences at SLU and before always come in handy. The WIC has shown me that you never really know which of your experiences have been the most valuable until a situation arises. A good example of this was a few weeks ago, when my team needed to make a 10’ x 10’ square out of rope while blindfolded. Drawing on a seemingly unrelated experience, I remembered my time in marching band in high school, letting me use muscle memory of measured steps to set the right length for the square’s diagonal.
Take time to reflect: Each week, an additional prize is given to the top submitted reflection after the challenge besides the awards given to the winning team. Whenever I can, I try to send in a brief evaluation of the rules for the challenge, how my team approached it, and what experiences I had as a result. Often, I have found that in the heat of a challenge, important details can be missed. When rushing to pitch a new idea for education, it is easy to overlook the important and unique circumstances of other team members. Only by reflecting after the event could I better understand and gain a greater appreciation for different perspectives. Likewise, thinking about a challenge later that day can even offer a new perspective or approach that maybe none of the teams considered. I can’t count the number of times I did a challenge in one way only to think of a superior alternative that night.
For the past few semesters, the WIC has introduced me to many new people with whom I have teamed up to compete in all sorts of challenges. By reflecting on the challenges, it has helped demonstrate many valuable lessons. I am genuinely grateful for having this opportunity during my time at SLU, and I will remember my experiences as I head to another university for graduate school next year.
Winning Reflection - Steve Doonan
Student Reflection - April 23, 2014
Today was a special day at the WIC because we had the opportunity to present to actual business owners in the St. Louis area. The company we worked with serves made-to-order meals, but the packaging they use is hard to handle which slows down productivity. The point of the presentation was to design a tool that could speed up packaging time. The beauty of the objective is that our design had the potential to grow wings and actually serve a purpose in the business. The company could have liked our idea so much that they decided to manufacture it. We gained experience in the way of collaboration, presentation and creative design.
In all honesty, coming up with a feasible idea was difficult. Steamrolling through dozens of ideas, we clearly had a challenge on our hands. It was quite the struggle to devise something we could all agree upon. After all, we are talking about making something that has never been devised before. I gained the insight of knowing when to differentiate between criticizing a teammate’s idea and moving forward with it. It turned out the idea that won the competition was similar to one of the designs our team shot down. We really had to work together without getting frustrated with one another, which is really difficult to do on such a deadline. Fortunately, our team was strong enough to come up with an innovative design in time to present and we were all happy with the outcome.
Presenting the idea put us up against a whole new hurdle to jump. We had such little time to prepare and we really wanted to get the important points across. Now what we did have on our side was that we collaborated with the business owners during the design process and we were able to find out what their real challenges were and exactly what we could focus on. We found that they struggled the most with packaging liquid food in Ziploc bags and keeping air out. This gave us a leg up in presenting to the challenges they actually face. We developed a strong sense of teamwork and poise in presenting today. We never wavered when it came time to pitch and that gave us a shield of confidence we could carry throughout our day.
The creative process we performed really turned the gears in our heads and gave us the opportunity to exercise our brains. As I mentioned before, we went through at least a dozen ideas that we could have legitimately presented. The best part is that we can apply this design process to our classroom learning. One teammate mentioned to me that he was planning on using one of our ideas for a project he has due in a few weeks. I feel like we would not have come up with so many ideas if we were not facing the ticking clock. Something about being on a deadline pumps up the heart rate and gets the creative juices flowing.
The winning idea was truly well presented. The design poster clearly displayed the product along with its application. Competition for today’s challenge was really at a high point. The judges had to take extra time to decide, which shows how hard their choice really was. The best part of today is that we went into the challenge with confidence, we nailed the pitch, and we had a great time building experience we can take with us into our professional lives.
Winning Reflection - Paul Madsen
Student Reflection - April 16, 2014
This week’s challenge, Homerun, was about applying age-old principles to a new context. The general idea behind the challenge was to launch a baseball as far as possible. Had the judges given us a bat and an open field, this challenge would have turned out a completely different way. However, we were challenged to launch the baseball as far as possible using basic craft supplies. Among the materials to choose from were rubber bands, wooden dowels, string, cups, tape, bandanas, and an assortment of other like materials. This put the responsibility of heaving the ball as far as possible on a built machine. The challenge was judged based on the longitudinal distance the baseball was launched and the weight of the machine. The judging system actually favored a lighter machine over longer distance. This set up a central dilemma of determining how much material to use to propel such a heavy object.
For this entire year, I have been working with the same team members on weekly innovation challenges, until today. Arriving without teammates, I joined a team of two who had already formed. They turned out to be an urban studies major and an electrical engineering major. So, I was working with people I had not met before, people whose majors were also different from my own public health major. At first, we all worked well together. We went to the supplies table to grab anything that we thought might help us build a good contraption. We then re-grouped and discussed some ideas as to go about this challenge. We were not very concerned with the weight component of this challenge. The materials we were using were all very lightweight, and our first priority was to create something that would actually have the power to launch a baseball. We all agreed that we needed to create some sort of stable lever that we could use to launch the ball. We decided upon hot gluing the tip of a wooden dowel to a piece of a cylindrical cardboard container. This held the tip of the dowel in place. We then put a tape dispenser immediately behind the tip of the dowel, so that when we pulled back the free end of the dowel, the wood bent over the tape dispenser, building up energy. Where our team had trouble communicating and agreeing upon was what to use to hold the baseball in, in order for it to launch. We ended up settling on attaching a bandana to the top of the free end of the dowel in a fashion that might resemble an old-fashioned slingshot. So our system worked similar to if someone went up to a young tree, pulled it back from its top, and then released it, allowing the tree to spring back upright. We used this motion to launch our baseball. Except, our baseball never successfully launched. The power held in the dowel was not enough to throw the sizeable baseball. Our release system also did not work, as the baseball struggled to come free of the bandana.
A lot of teams tried to use rubber bands in order to launch the baseball, but these attempts only sent the baseball a matter of inches to maybe two feet. I think the short distances recorded for all the teams stem from the emphasis that was placed on the weight of the machine. In order to cut down on weight, teams also drastically cut down on the machine’s ability to launch the ball. From this, I learned the lesson that it is incredibly important to focus on the task at hand. Many challenges will have distracting complications, but there is always a goal that is trying to be achieved. The first priority, in this case, should have been getting the ball to launch. But, too many people focused on the efficiency of the machine, which resulted in poor performance. Today’s challenge was a permutation on the question of quality vs. quantity. This week, our team chose the wrong answer. But, the weekly innovation challenge did succeed in illustrating another concept of critical thinking and problem solving.
Winning Reflection - Ted Stewart-Hester
Student Reflection - April 9, 2014
Today’s challenge, By the Numbers, proved to be a task I was not expecting. It was like a game of hot potato on steroids where having a quick trigger finger on the answer was the key to winning. The challenge involved answering a series of questions whose answers were all numbers. The judge would tell you if your answer was high or low and you would pass the baton to the next group and the cycle would continue. The trick was to answer the question asked of the group without being the one holding the baton when the timer went off. Having the baton meant losing a point while reaching the right answer meant gaining a point. I found myself twitching and shaking trying to keep up with the madness of the event. The challenge today introduced aspects of teamwork, gut feelings, and working with a deadline.
There were so many moving parts to the challenge that having a team was critical to success. One team member would write down potential answers while the other would perform calculations and the third was responsible for answering and ridding the team of the baton as soon as possible. There was one point where it was my team’s turn to answer and I had no idea what to say when my teammate tapped my shoulder and revealed what turned out to be the correct answer by his calculation. Teamwork was the key to success in that instance and I am sure the other teams would tell you the same. Having a great team is what helped us do so well in the challenge.
Speed was an understated skill that we employed today. Being able to come up with a reasonable answer while trying to decipher what other groups are saying is quite a task. Losing a point from failure to recognize the timer was really a killer seeing as the winning team only had three points. Balance between time and thoughtfulness is often an obstacle we must face and the only way to get over it is to train our ability to make an impulse decision. A timer often binds some of the most important decisions I make. Today I learned how to overcome the jitters of thinking too hard by just acting with impulse and conviction. The best part about it is that I performed at my best when the clock was on.
The challenge actually put me on my toes and made me perform better the entire day. A challenge that gets the heart rate up and creates a quick thinking environment allows for me to blast out the mental cobwebs and run at my peak. The best part is that I can take what I learned today and apply it in school, at my job, and even when I am around friends. It helps make me be sharper in just about any social environment I may incur. There is something to be said about having the skill of quick wits. I am certain that I will take the speed I ran with today and use it to my advantage in the future.
The best part about the whole event is that I got to have fun with friends while learning valuable lessons in the process. I could write a list pages long of the skills I honed today. Choosing an answer and committing to it even though it is likely incorrect is tough. We have to learn to deal with failure by immediately learning from it. We failed more times than we won today but that brought us to appreciate our triumphs more. It helped us realize the value in a dedicated pursuit for the best solution. We did not let pitfalls get the best of us in today’s challenge. That is a badge of confidence we will uniform ourselves with from this day forward.
Winning Reflection - Paul Madsen
Student Reflection - April 2, 2014
This week’s innovation challenge, Keeping up with the News, challenged our group to come up with an innovation inspired from something found within a newspaper. The idea was that successful innovators often stay up to date on current events in order to be on the cutting edge of new developments. Our inspirational materials took the form of a local St. Louis paper, the USA Today and the New York Times. Each of our team members, a public health major, business and finance major and electrical engineer major, grabbed a paper and began searching for a story that would serve as the basis for a new innovation. This was a harder task than we had all thought. It was clear that we were not going to be able to create solutions to wide scale world issues that were being reported. None of us had a solution for the conflict with Russia, the location of the missing airplane or any game changers for America’s pastime, baseball. Our team finally stumbled upon an article that highlighted the efforts of Disney to incorporate RFID bracelets into their theme parks and lodgings to enhance the experience of their guests. Visitors could use the bracelets to get on rides or even scan into their hotel rooms. We did not know exactly what would come of this idea, but we knew it was the most promising article we had come across yet, and we would make it work. So, we went to tell the judges that we wanted to pick this article, since teams could not use an article that another team was already using. After looking through three newspapers and only finding one idea that we were hesitant on, it was just our luck that another team had already chosen to work with that article.
At this point, there was only about 15 minutes left in the challenge. We had hit a wall. With time running down and no ideas, our group’s mentality changed. We felt that with no ideas and no time, the pressure to create something significant was lowered, our standards had been lowered. Still without an idea, the proverbial “think outside the box” saying crossed my mind as I flipped through the puzzle section of the newspaper. Right in the middle of the page was the New York Times crossword puzzle. We thought this was exactly the out of the box thinking we would need at this time in the competition. We approached the judge to tell him what part of the paper we were using as our only source of information for an innovation. When shown the crossword puzzle, he responded, “Is this a joke?”
Now, it is not exactly encouraging to have someone ask if your source for inspiration is a joke. However, we did not let this stop us from working with the crossword puzzle as a source of innovation. From looking at a crossword puzzle, our team created “PIP”. This stands for the Personal Information Puzzle. In today’s world, more and more interactions occur over a technological media. A current trend is paying online or having cards that just need a quick swipe to pay. This mode of transaction has opened the door to the ever pressing issue of identity theft. There is little to no way of knowing who is truly behind a transaction of these sorts. PIP is a unique technology that integrates personal information and personal identification. PIP users create a question bank relating to their personal information, similar to that of clues given for a crossword puzzle. These questions may hint at various pieces of personal information such as place of birth, blood type, or name of your first pet. The user will then fill in the correct answers and a computer program generates an encrypted completed crossword. This takes the form of an image similar to a QR code. This image is unique to the user, and a computer can generate different sizes and combinations of the user’s information to create various personal information puzzles. When prompted, the user would have to answer one or more randomized personal information questions to complete their puzzle, which generates the unique puzzle image. This image can then be displayed on a phone to scan into buildings or secure locations or used to unlock a computer system. This system ensures the knowledge that the user of a form of identification is in fact who they claim to be since the source of the identification is personal information that only a certain individual would know. This tool may even have application in the health care field as a way to identify patients as well as gaining personal information through a puzzle that is unlocked by the user. Our group thought this product had served as an innovative way to link personal identification with personal information with many real world applications.
It was frustratingly difficult to come up with an idea in response to the challenge this week. Despite the initial struggle to think creatively, this challenge did afford several chances to learn about innovation. In the end, I think it was a good thing that another team had already taken the article about the Disney bracelets. Until we had been rejected, we were looking at the paper for something to inspire us. We were trying to force something in the paper to inspire some sort of innovation. We looked at something that was already created, something that was already innovative for a basis for further innovation. That was not an organic way to go about this challenge. Looking specifically for innovative ideas creates preconceived notions and ideas, thoughts that are not foundationally innovative. Not being able to work with the first article forced our group to really create, we did not search for inspiration but we became willing to be inspired. Our group also learned about the challenges innovators face in the initial stages of their ideas when many people may be critical of their inspiration or ideas. But we were able to work as a team and successfully innovate.
Winning Reflection - Theodore Stewart-Hester
Student Reflection - March 26, 2014
It was yet another creative day at the Weekly Innovation Challenge. Today’s challenge was all about being creative while not sacrificing convenience for on-the-road eaters. The objective was to come up with a package design that offers convenience and safety to busy individuals who often need to satisfy their hunger while driving. The target was for drive-thru, fast food restaurants.
Upon receiving the impromptu challenge prompt, my team, which consisted of a senior in biochemistry and myself, immediately drew up designs in our minds. After offering my idea of the cone-like cup that has a removable food tray on top and drink on the bottom, we agreed to elaborate on this idea after a short brainstorming session. We agreed this was a good design due to its simplicity, economical and convenience in nature. Since we had to deliver a pitch to convince the judges of the proposed design, we created posters to provide visual aid. We ended up winning the challenge based on the fact that our design was realistic, convenient and simple, among other things.
In conclusion, it was a good learning experience to pay attention to every detail of the problem we were trying to solve. In this case, we carefully accounted for many different aspects of the problem, such as the type of restaurant, type of food, consumer, driving habits, safety concerns, and so on. Having all the information laid out, discussing the problem was a breeze. For instance, we aimed to design a package with extra simplicity due to the fact that drivers needed one less thing to worry about to ensure their focus on the road; we knew the packaging had to be economical since they would be disposable, hence they were to be made of biodegradable card board. Overall, it was a meaningful and fun-filled challenge!
Winning Reflection - Aaron Phu
Student Reflection - March 19, 2014
While I try to attend the Weekly Innovation Challenge (WiC) often, my recent schedule has prevented me from competing in the past few weeks due to school-related travel. Today’s event ended up being a great way to get back into the competition. Because I always use the WIC to meet with new people from different backgrounds, my team this week consisted of a graduate aerospace engineering student, a sophomore business major, and me, a senior biochemistry major. Today’s event was the “Dash to the Finish Line”, and it provided a great opportunity for me to develop my teamwork skills with my new teammates.
For the challenge, the key theme was speed. In order to win, teams needed to be the fastest to complete the three sub-challenges. First, teams needed to solve the following code: “JEMPYVI MW RSX ER STXMSR”
Next, they were required to make a square pattern out of 40 feet of tangled rope while blindfolded. Finally, the last phase had individuals from each team rushing to repeat a color pattern dictated by the judges by touching the corresponding colors around the McDonnell Douglass rotunda. After each successful attempt, the color code was lengthened by one additional color.
Initially, my team struggled with the code challenge. We saw the first team complete it rather quickly and rush to the next event before my teammate tried swapping each letter with letters near to it alphabetically. Eventually, I noticed that the “ER” two letter word might correspond to “AN,” an actual two letter word whose letters were four below each of them in the alphabet. Therefore:
J E M P Y V I M W R S X E R S T X M S R
F A I L U R E I S N O T A N O P T I O N
Second, we quickly formulated a plan for the rope challenge. By untangling and then doubling over the rope twice, we had four lengths of ten feet each. I fixed the first corner while my teammates spread the two corresponding sides. Next, I needed to take the other corner diagonally away from me to finish the square. Because the square was 10 feet per side, I realized I needed to walk about 15 feet for the diagonal. I quickly remembered my marching band days in high school and used my muscle memory to go through 5 yards in 8 steps, the standard marching band step length. Despite the blindfolds, my team succeeded in making the square on our first attempt.
Winning Reflection - Steve Doonan
- Learn more about the Weekly Innovation Challenges
- View our Weekly Innovation Challenge Resources
Student Reflection - February 26, 2014
Today’s Weekly Innovation Challenge was not like any other. The goal was not to build the highest tower, the coolest plane, or even create a pitch for a new product. Today’s challenge was one of wits, self-control, and Sherlock-like deduction skills. The challenge today was a variation of the usual 20 questions game where the leader chooses a mystery item, and each team had a chance to ask a single question, in exchange for a yes or no answer, with which they had to make a guess on what the item was. The first team to go is always at a disadvantage, but soon the stakes increase because one hint at a time, the teams get one step closer to an answer, and the team to first guess the right object gets the point for the round. The team with the most points gains the victory.
When reflecting on today’s challenge, there were a couple of things that we as a team did right, but there were also ways we strayed from the winning tactics. In many cases we made sure to run ideas by each other, which was great because more heads are better than one. The one problem that we ran into while running these ideas by each other, took more time to come to consensus, which is detrimental when you are trying to come up with a question and answer within 20 seconds.
Another component of the game was paying attention and not allowing the pressure to get to ones head. Both of these were important because one lapse of attention could cause you to miss an important hint which could help your team win. If the pressure was too much, this would also throw off ones concentration giving the other team the advantage.
After today’s challenge I learned to work on keeping calm when working under pressure, but also a large component of this challenge was to make due with the facts that you have, because the other teams will ask questions that benefit them, and these questions will not always be the ones you want, so you have to work within your means with your team to come to an answer to each mystery object.
Winning Reflection - Matthew Palka
- Learn more about the Weekly Innovation Challenges
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Student Reflection - February 19, 2014
These weekly innovation challenges have become my new addiction! It’s only my second week competing, but I have enjoyed both challenges. It’s an outlet for creativity, something I think I’ve taken for granted for a long time.
This particular challenge was surprising compared to the first one I participated in last week. I expected it to be similar to the previous challenge in which something had to be constructed. However, this one was a sales pitch! Very different! The objective was to market on behalf of an American industry/services/goods to Indian investors. The addition of the cultural aspect made the challenge tougher, but also more interesting.
My teammates and I decided to first begin by studying Indian culture and find an industry, a service, or a product that would either appeal to the population at large or be beneficial for everyday living. After a few minutes of delegation, our group unfortunately came up with two ideas. The main problem we had with having multiple suggestions is that we were indecisive as to which would be a better service. One idea was a loan service that would be beneficial, while the other was a social media website for marriage arrangements geared toward public interest. We decided to try and build up the details for both ideas and choose the strongest one, but in the end we felt neither idea was good enough on its own and tried to merge the two. And there was our demise! During the 90 second pitch we exceeded the limit and could not finish explaining our combined idea.
I learned a lot during this challenge. The main takeaway is this: It’s impossible to pitch an idea to investors if you can’t even pitch the idea to your own team. Neither of the suggestions grabbed full attention of all three of us, so therefore it was no surprise the judges didn’t buy into it either. I’m glad I competed in the challenge. I feel as though I learned a lesson for not only future challenges, but also for life as well.
Winning Reflection - Michael Hankins
Student Reflection - February 12, 2014
While the Weekly Innovation Challenge often encourages competitors to solve abstract problems, today’s competition required teams to complete a very hands-on, concrete task. At the start of the event, each team of three was given a simple ballpoint pen. The rules were simple: the team whose pen took the longest to hit the ground in free fall from the top of the McDonnell Douglas Hall rotunda was the winner. To slow the descent, a wide array of materials was available to build gliders and parachutes for the pens.
Because my team this week included two engineering students, we had a few ideas to create the best device, and we actually made several prototypes. First, we used a cardboard sheet to make a helicopter design that spun to slow the falling motion. After that seemed less than successful, we tried to make a flat glider out of bubble wrap and duct tape. Our final device was a parachute made of construction paper. Ultimately, the glider design provided the best results, even if it was not completely consistent in its performance. Looking back, I think I might have tried another design if I had gotten more time. Because all the teams started at the same height, the additional prototype would have been a rubber band-based launcher system to propel the pen higher upon release. Even if the pen might have fallen at a faster rate afterwards compared to other teams’ parachutes, the added height might have more than compensated.
Even though my team ended up with one of the shorter fall times, we managed to quickly brainstorm a wide variety of ideas and even create three working models. While none of these ideas were completely successful, each provided a working platform that might have been improved if given the opportunity.Winning Reflection - Steve Doonan