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Trial and Error: The Gritty 21st Century Skill

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Trains, planes and automobiles are bringing thousands of competitors from over 70 countries to Los Angeles for the 2014 Intel ISEF, the world's largest international science and engineering fair. Attending ISEF as official observers will be 23 Broadcom MASTERS delegates, selected by the judges at their national science fairs as future innovators in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). At the ages of 12-14, these young MASTERS have demonstrated that they have already acquired the "true grit" that comes from applying trial and error in science competition.

I met with one of these students while in China where I also sat down with university leaders in the city of Xi'an at the trailhead of the ancient Silk Road. Xi'an was the capital city of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (260-210 BC) who famously unified China, engineered the Great Wall and armed his tomb with 8,000 terracotta warriors. Today, the city is the site of the Xi'a high-tech industrial development zone (XHTZ) and base of communications: the Silk Road is fast becoming the Silicon Road. Along with thought leaders in the U.S. and other countries around the world concerned about preparing the next generation for success in 21st century workplace, academic and business leaders in China are promoting project-based learning for children through national science fair participation in order to imbue them with the 21st century skill set of critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity.

In my mind, science and engineering fairs give kids a real-world taste of the grittiest experience needed to become an innovator: "trial and error." Creativity is born from the courage to explore, test limits and exercise independent judgment -- skills that cannot be acquired from rote classroom learning. To be successful in the 21st century, students must learn that outcomes do not necessarily measure up to initial expectations. To be creative in all fields of science, engineering, mathematics and the arts requires focus and precision -- and above all, perseverance.

Preparing young people for the 21st century is a worldwide challenge. Working for a global semiconductor company whose motto is "Connecting everything," I am keenly aware that 21st century working environments will be borderless, ubiquitous and demand collaborative, and yes, rough and tumble approaches to problem solving -- whether in communications, healthcare, energy, transportation, sustainability or digital entertainment. This is why participating in science and engineering fairs is such an important opportunity to help students assimilate critical 21st century skills.

The opportunity to creatively engage in trial and error is the universally adopted guideline set by Society for Science and the Public for affiliated fairs throughout the world. The experience of making mistakes or wrong assumptions, then dusting oneself off and trying again is essential to achieving success in competition and applicable to future success in any field of endeavor. Students are called upon to test and retest their hypotheses, to design, test and redesign an engineering project before presenting a finished product on a topic. Because the student chooses the topic, the process of trial and error does not seem intimidating, but a personal journey and adventure. The creative process does not assume success or failure -- rather the joy of experimentation and discovery.

When our 23 International MASTERS delegates arrive in Los Angeles, many will be unaccustomed to speaking English. The way they will become fast friends -- and possibly innovative collaborators of the future -- is to engage in project-based learning exercises in teams that have no two delegates from the same nation. The objective of their week is to strengthen their appreciation for the important skill that brought them to the Broadcom MASTERS and will carry them into a bright future as STEM leaders: trial and error.