Beating Silicon Valley at its own game

This month and next, students will head to fields in Wichita, Kansas, and The Plains, Virginia, for two rites of spring that are taking on increased importance given the fierce competition among industries to attract the sharpest and most passionate minds.

I’m talking about AIAA’s annual Design Build Fly aircraft competition for undergraduate teams from the U.S. and abroad, and the Team America Rocketry Challenge for U.S. students in grades 7 through 12.

In Design Build Fly, teams design and build remote-controlled aircraft and then gather for a flyoff to see who can best meet a rigorous set of requirements that are different each year. Last year’s flyoff drew 73 teams from as far away as Slovenia and India.

In the rocketry challenge, teams of students from around the U.S. must build and fly rockets that can carry a raw egg, sometimes two, to a specified altitude and back within a required time without breakage. The specific rules and parameters are different each year. On average, five thousand students compete locally to be among the 100 teams that gather at The Plains outside Washington, D.C., in May for the finals of this competition put on by the Aerospace Industries Association and the National Association of Rocketry.

So, if you’re one of those who worries that the best and brightest STEM minds are being lured to Silicon Valley or Wall Street to write code instead of revolutionizing aircraft or spacecraft, I would suggest that competitions like these are among the best ways to fight back.

Silicon Valley’s products are in the hands of children soon after the crib if not while they are still in it. Children on average get their first smartphone by age 10, according to the New York Times, citing 2016 research by the Influence Central marketing firm. That is down from 12 in 2012. And of course kids start playing with mom’s or dad’s phone much earlier.

Being human, it’s only a matter of time before some of these kids start wondering how these games, apps and devices work; how they might make them do even more amazing things. Some of them will one day conceive of the next big step in information devices and concepts.

I would not begrudge any young person for pursuing an education and career that leads to Silicon Valley, to Wall Street or even outside the world of science and technology. The point is to empower kids to find their passions. If a young person never gets the chance for a hands-on encounter with aerospace technology, one that’s the equivalent of playing with the code of a computer game, then he or she did not truly make a choice.

That’s the timely problem that the surging interest in aircraft and rocket challenges is beginning to solve.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Beating Silicon Valley at its own game