Young Inventor’s Challenge

Guest Article by Emily Fleitz
American University
The most rewarding part of being a Fulbright ETA is seeing my students grow.  But it can be a pretty slow process. I have to remind myself that I cannot know my true impact and that my students will continue being affected by me long after I leave.  It’s really awesome when I do get to see them improve and even excel.
For the past few months I have coached a team of form 4 (16 year old) boys in the Young Inventors’ Challenge. They entered the competition with a written proposal for a “glowing bookmark.”  They beat out 100 competitors and were invited to present a physical prototype in Kuala Lumpur in September.
The boys weren’t sure if they could do it.  They knew they would be competing against students who went to schools that specialized in science and technology.  They were nervous about their English skills and weren’t sure that they would be able to communicate with the judges.  I knew all along that they could hold their own in the competition.  What I didn’t know was how to get them there.
We live in Tamparuli, Sabah – a small town in the foothills of Mount Kinabalu on the island of Borneo.  We’re about an hour and a half away from Kota Kinabalu, Sabah’s capital and about a two and a half hour plane ride away from mainland Malaysia.  Because of the distance, we would need to come to town the night before in order to attend the competition on time.  I knew my students couldn’t personally afford the trip and that our school’s budget couldn’t accommodate seven plane tickets and two nights at a hotel.
While the students finalized their report and built their bookmark, I sent a budget proposal to the US Embassy.  They so generously offered to sponsor our trip and my students’ dreams came a little closer.
On Friday, September 19, five students and a teacher chaperone landed in KL We took a taxi to our hotel and spent the afternoon shopping for some last minute invention supplies.  For four of the five students, it was their first time on an airplane and their first time to Kuala Lumpur.  It was so fun to introduce my students to the city I had gotten to know during our Fulbright orientation.
On the day of the competition, we woke up very early and were disappointed to see that it was raining!  I had specifically booked a hotel within walking distance to the venue.  But we didn’t let it dampen our spirits and found some taxis to bring us and the invention to the competition safely.
At the competition venue with students
The competition was tough.  Many teams were students from the top schools in Malaysia.  Another ETA, Bridget, was there with her school and the two of us felt nervous surrounded by such obviously high performers.  I helped my students prepare and practice their speech to the judges and too soon it was time to go.  I tried to be enthusiastic and encourage them, but inside my stomach was tied in knots.
Exploring Kuala Lumpur after the competition
The mentors had a separate program while we waited for judging to finish and the open house to start.  Bridget and I were so nervous!  Finally we were allowed to see our students.  My boys’queasy smiles had transformed into grins.  They were so proud of themselves!  Some MACEE staff were there and the boys were eager to share about their invention.  After speaking English nonstop for an entire morning, they felt confident in answering any question about the glowing bookmark.  When the Deputy Minister of Education, P. Kamalanathan, stopped by their booth, they kept their cool and did a great job of showing off their prototype.  As he left I heard him call them geniuses.
Meeting Malaysian Pop Icon, AC Mizal at Hard Rock Cafe in Kuala Lumpur.
He showed the students his latest music video entitled Paranoid.
We did not win any trophies or prize money, but the experience more than paid off.  My students succeeded at trying something new and gained a new level of confidence and pride.  It was so much fun seeing their success and enjoying Kuala Lumpur with them.

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