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Learning by doing is key to STEM education

Through our Keysight Innovation Challenge this year, I was inspired to see the clever and impactful designs that our six finalist teams devised to address climate change. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and their dedication was heartening.

But then I went down the internet rabbit hole and had a shocking realization. My search was triggered by one of our contestants, Martyna Iwanczyk from the Warsaw University of Technology, who said, “In lectures, we only learn about stuff, but this is the first time we can build something ourselves.” A couple of the other students made similar comments. I thought about the importance of learning by doing, and I wondered if other tech companies were also holding similar contests for college students to learn (and earn prize money!) through hands-on development. Are peer companies stepping up to get the ball rolling for these kids’ careers? I found a few contests and hackathons for students put on by colleges and NGOs, and another few with corporate sponsors. But there doesn’t seem to be many other company-led challenges. I’m proud of what we are doing with this challenge and how it helps showcase innovative engineering possibilities and connects with the next generation of STEM leaders. There are infinite ways to support STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education, but I’d like to see more of these hands-on contests led by the tech industry that has the know-how and resources to make them productive, and also has the incentive to develop the next generation of talent.

Innovation challenges spur our best and brightest to think outside the box and solve real problems. In fact, one of our 2019 winners has since started a robotics company based on the work his team did for that challenge. These contests also provide much-needed resources to both fund and mentor students’ development. When asked what they would do with the prize money if they won, the most common answer was to help pay for their education, either via their parents or through loan repayment (although one student did say he would go to Disney World). This is not something I want my company to corner the market on. My hope is that more companies will get on board, and, to that end, here are a few guiding principles we can share because it’s important to encourage and develop engineering talent for our future.


Providing a few parameters without overly limiting the challenge lets students follow their imaginations and look at the challenge from their own unique perspectives. In our case, we asked students to create an IoT device that provides carbon neutrality monitoring, and they came up with devices to monitor dirt, clouds, cityscapes, car emissions, and more—all designed to help our world reach net-zero carbon emissions. Seeing so much diversity come from one challenge reinforced to me that our most pressing challenges can be solved in many ways, and there’s no limit to innovation. TAKE IT BEYOND STEM INNOVATION


Although the primary goal of most innovation challenges is technical, it’s important to include a dose of reality in the mix. Our five criteria were innovation, real-world application, sensor effectiveness, AI capabilities, and cybersecurity resilience. “Real-world application” is essential because it also teaches these students with limited job experience to think about things like whether there is a business model in their design—who will pay for it, is it affordable, and can it be commercialized? Can it be built and implemented at scale? Because in the real world, innovation must be balanced with practical concerns, and it helps to learn that early on.


Great innovation addresses great problems, and many individual innovations need to be incubated and scaled to effect meaningful change. One of our judges, Juan Pablo Celis Garcia, Youth Engagement Specialist for the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), based in Nairobi, Kenya, is involved with the U.N.’s Young Champions of the Earth award. During our challenge, he described one of their projects which is growing coral on farms, 50 times faster than coral grows in nature, in an effort to restore these crucial dying habitats. It started with one idea and a little bit of award funding that they have parlayed into a full-fledged commercial venture. With more funding, they are scaling their work around the Caribbean and Latin America. It takes just one idea to change the world, and your contest can plant the seed that makes this kind of change happen.

I stand by my position that there are any number of ways to enhance STEM education, but learning by doing is a critical component of good technical instruction. And learning through the creative structure of a contest with a set of parameters, goals, and career-enhancing mentorship and networking is uniquely beneficial to STEM students.

Marie Hattar is CMO at Keysight Technologies, responsible for brand and global marketing efforts.

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