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Monday, November 22, 2010

Child entrepreneurs II

One of my dilemmas on this blog is how much it’s about engineering and how much it’s about entrepreneurship. I solve that by sometimes combining both, sometimes focusing on one or another.

Distinctly on the engineering side is the First Lego League, a program for kids 9-14. After experiencing FLL as a coach, the past three years I’ve served as a judge — including last Saturday at St. Lawrence Middle School in Santa Clara. The first round tournament was one of 22 organized this month by NorCalFLL and Playing at Learning.

With a St. Lawrence teacher, I was evaluating the efforts by half of the 18 teams to solve this year’s puzzle: find a biomedical solution to a human health problem. (The project is completely independent of most exciting element of the FLL competition: making a Lego robot to run the maze.)

In the end, our evaluation criteria seemed fairly similar to what an engineering school would use for a business plan competition (or idea fair) for these same kids a decade later:
  • A good idea, well researched
  • Professional, polished presentation and visual aids
  • Balanced team roles in the prepared remarks and Q&A
  • Enthusiasm and creativity in engaging the audience
Except for the content, the best teams were as good as the undergraduate teams that I’ve seen in my business school teaching for almost a decade.

The big problem we had in judging was balancing creativity vs. realism in their idea for a biomedical product. Some teams had fanciful ideas that were utterly infeasible. Others had utterly prosaic ideas that were so practical that someone either is implementing them already or will be soon. The best came up with something that might not be feasible today but could be soon.

If I had one piece of advice to give the kids (or parents or teachers) of how to balance this, it’s this: do more research. Understand your problem, customer, competitors better; understand the technology better; think through more details of implementation.

As it turns out, that’s not that different than my advice to b-school seniors for their business plans. Or, for that matter, what many entrepreneurs wish they’d done before they launched their companies.

In other words, this program for developing elementary and middle school engineers is a good predictor of skills they’ll need in college or even the real world. That‘s an impressive testament to the leadership of the FLL program, including founder Dean Kamen (creator of the Segway) and retired MIT professor Woodie Flowers (who essentially created the robot competition at MIT).

I wonder if researchers will follow up on the FLL (or FRC) competitors to see if they are more likely to entrepreneurs 10 or 20 years later.

Note: Although this is my second posting in a week on childhood entrepreneurship, it doesn’t reflect a new emphasis of the blog, just my personal interest in entrepreneurship and K-12 STEM education.

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