By TALIA JUBAS
Three Cornell mechanical engineering students have won the “Young Innovators” award in the Science, Play and Research Kit Competition, a competition that looks for ideas that “encourage imagination and interest in science.”
Mikhail Yakhnis ’14, Paul Chang ’15 and Oliver Kliewe ’14 received the $2,500 award in the prototype category for their project “Codeco,” an interactive board game designed to teach children the fundamentals of logic and computer programming.
Codeco started as a semester-long project in Innovative Product Design, taught by Professor Robert Shepherd, mechanical and aerospace engineering.
According to Kliewe, who is also a senior photographer for The Sun, the project grew from an idea to a “functional prototype with a high-level business plan” over the course of the fall semester.
“Hopefully with future promotion of Codeco, we will be able to spark interest in the next generation of children to pursue science and engineering during their undergraduate career.” —Paul Chang ’15
“The motivation for this project was to provide an intuitive, physical construct through which young children can begin learning programming concepts that might not be formally taught until high school,” Kliewe said.
Codeco is the name of a microcontroller powered robot, included in the game, who “comes pre-programmed to understand a certain set of interlocking tiles using a radio-frequency identification reader and tags,” Kliewe said.
Chang added that each player is given a puzzle card and a certain set of function tiles that the player must use to direct Codeco from the start tile on the game board to the finish.
The group believes that Codeco can provide players with more than a fun game and will help move them beyond a preliminary interest in coding, saying that it can equip children with logic skills that “will be valuable in any career they choose to pursue.”
The SPARK competition, created by the Society for Science and the Public and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, challenges participants to “reimagine the chemistry set of the 21st century,” according to its website.
The competition welcomed prototypes and project ideas that incorporated any scientific field using classic chemistry sets — which have become antiquated due to chemicals included in the sets are now considered illegal — as a symbol of the kind of product that was once essential in capturing children’s innate curiosity in how things work and focusing it on scientific exploration, according to the press release and the competition’s website.
“Cool technologies or scientific concepts that can truly excite children and organically make them want to learn more about it are becoming rare or are packaged as an iPhone or Xbox,” Kliewe said. “Something that can get kids playing and learning is something that will grow the next generation of great and curious scientific minds.”
According to a press release from the Society for Science and the Public and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, SPARK received 125 entries from a diverse applicant pool, ranging from elementary and high school science teachers, to undergraduates, to scientists and inventors.
Projects were divided and evaluated in two categories: prototypes, which are operational products, and “ideations,” or well-developed ideas that are not yet prototypes, the press release said. After several rounds of judging, the competition selected a total of 16 winners for recognition and awarded $136,000 in prize money.
“With a remarkable range and quality of entries submitted, our judges were challenged to narrow down the top winners,” said Rick Bates, interim CEO and chief advancement officer for the Society for Science and the Public. “The prototypes and ideas of our winners have an especially strong potential to be developed and to inspire kids to explore their world while developing a passion for science,” he said.
The winners from Cornell are working to acquire a a patent for their product and are considering launching a Kickstarter campaign in order to gauge public interest in Codeco.
“We are currently in the process of further refining our design, both in its appearance and its functionality,” Chang said. “Hopefully with future promotion of Codeco, we will be able to spark interest in the next generation of children to pursue science and engineering during their undergraduate career.”