Rob McFeaters (left) and three of the six judges in action at the Project Paradigm Challenge.
Rob McFeaters (left) and three of the six judges in action at the Project Paradigm Challenge.

“Getting to take an idea, turn it into a prototype, and see something actually working, that’s what helps to provide a large boost in interest for science and technology in kids,” said Rob McFeaters. “There’s the gratification of having done something instead of just learning from a book or doing pages and pages of worksheets.”

McFeaters, a fire protection consultant who’s been with Harrington Group since 2011, spent a day this spring in the Auburn Junior High School library perusing submissions to the Paradigm Challenge, a youth competition that aims to address social issues with hands-on projects. Hosted by Project Paradigm, a foundation that encourages youth to problem solve and make global changes, this year’s event was the inaugural competition. The challenge? Come up with a new idea to help prevent injuries and fatalities in the case of a house fire. Students as young as young as seven, all the way up through high school seniors were eligible to participate as individuals or small teams, and the Auburn Junior High School robotics teacher incorporated the competition into the course’s curriculum to give the students the chance to apply what they learned to a real-life issue.

McFeaters was in good company when he visited the school—the six-person panel of judges included a National Fire Protection Association VP of research, an equipment design engineer, a professor of chemical engineering, a field specialist, and a fire chief. The judges examined each poster board and asked the students questions about their designs, and McFeaters said he was impressed by the creativity and innovation of several of the teams.

“A lot of the kids were very passionate about what they were doing, and you could tell by the way they gave their presentations,” he said. “I would have loved to have had an opportunity like this as a junior high school student.”

The projects ran the gamut in terms of ambition, practicality, and design, and the prototypes included a masks and breathing apparatus, emergency notification lights, fire-resistant clothing, remote-control mini firetrucks, systems for the hearing and vision impaired, an escape ladder that unrolls from the outside of a windowsill, and a fire-proof trash can.

The judges selected first, second, and third place winners, and those projects went on to the national competition. The top 100 finalists were announced on May 11, and on July 23 the foundation will announce the winner, as well as the topic for next year’s challenge. The first place team will receive a grand prize of $20,000, “that they can save for college and/or use to chase their dreams,” and the second and third place winners will also take home cash prizes. Any leftover funds will go toward nonprofit organizations involved in fire prevention efforts.

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