innovators a moonshot

Next month, the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Merritt Island, Florida, will host the 12th annual Conrad Challenge Innovation Summit from Tuesday, April 23 to Friday, April 26. Competitors in the challenge this year will come from all over the globe, including groups from Australia, India, Africa, South Korea, and beyond.

The Conrad Challenge is a multiphase entrepreneurial and innovation competition wherein small groups of middle and high school-aged students compete for the opportunity to pitch solutions to industry leaders and potential investors. The eponymous challenge is named after Apollo 12 astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, who became the third man to walk on the moon in 1969.

The competition serves as a platform for ingenuity and innovation for 13 to 18-year-old students by challenging them to develop solutions for real-world problems within one of six categories.

The challenge’s four traditional categories are science and engineering focused, comprising of aerospace and aviation, cyber-technology and security, energy and environment, and health and nutrition.

Students may alternatively choose to compete in two special categories. The Foundation for a Smoke Free World sponsors the Smoke Free World special category, and SMART Technologies sponsors the Transforming Education Through Technology Category.

Teams enter to compete by submitting a business plan for a solution within one category. Finalists are invited to the Innovation Summit round and present their ideas to a panel of industry expert judges, who select one winning team in each category.

Conrad Foundation founder Nancy Conrad, Pete’s wife, describes the competition as “Shark Tank meets the Academy Awards for kids.” Members of winning groups receive the honor of being named Pete Conrad Scholars and gain business support to foster transformation of their concepts into viable products. Winning is a notable achievement, and just participating in the challenge is enough for students to reap rewards – Clarkson University is now offering Conrad Foundation Scholarships for students who qualify.

The contest was borne out of Nancy Conrad’s passion for teaching and desire to give kids their ‘moonshot.’ When her husband Pete was a student, he experienced immense difficulties in school. He struggled with dyslexia long before the condition was well-understood and was expelled from a prestigious private school in 11th grade. Pete was given a second chance after finding a suitable school in upstate New York, where he repeated the 11th grade, working with a headmaster who accommodated his learning struggles.

“The headmaster at that school saw something special in him and took him under his wing, and Pete ended up with a scholarship to Princeton,” recalls Nancy.

After his passing in 1999, Pete’s success, combined with Nancy’s experience as a high school teacher, inspired her to give students the same opportunity her husband had been granted.

“An educator takes a kid under his wing and the kid gets a moonshot. That’s what we’re going to do. We’ll give kids their moonshot,” she remembers thinking as she first came up with the idea for the challenge. “We take high school kids from all over the world under our wing and we help them to understand what is innovation and entrepreneurship and they get to design the future. That’s the end game.”

Past Conrad Challenge contestants have experienced great success during the competition and beyond.

“What it’s really about is they’ve learned how to think, and they’ve learned how to learn. Once you can do that you can do anything,” said Nancy. “Every single year I flip out and I go ‘it can’t get any better.’ And every single year it gets better.”

One of the most successful products to grow out of the competition was Mikayla and Shannon Diesch’s STEM-Bar, a nutrition bar designed for use in space. Another alumnus went on to found Undercover Colors, which produces tests that can be used to determine whether a drink is spiked, and yet another had a chance to speak on the floor of the UN to present his app developed to revolutionize farming in Africa.

Many alumni have been admitted to top universities including Harvard and Stanford, in part due to their participation in the challenge.

“In addition to learning how to learn and how to think, it is also about gaining self-confidence, and knowing how to present yourself,” said Nancy.

She notes that alumni have had such a high-impact experience during the competition that they carry the experience with them, “whether they develop that product or they go on to do something else.”

The SMART Technologies-sponsored Transforming Education Through Technology category was introduced after Nancy spoke at a conference in Orlando and decided to walk the exhibit floor to see education tech products on display. After witnessing the SMART Board, she got in touch with SMART Technologies’ CEO and partnered with the company to launch a new competition category in which students could develop their own education technology products.

“They’re the stakeholder that’s never at the table with education,” she notes, highlighting the importance of student voices in the development of education tech. Competitors in the category this year include Princess Programming, which video game designed to help young girls learn programming, and BEHAVR, which developed a VR simulator that responds to brain waves through EEGs.

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