Broadcom MASTERS

A short one today: I’m in Washington DC at Broadcom MASTERS, with the kids who produced the USA’s best science fair projects, and I’ll be heading back to the UK after a brief sleep. Thirty middle school kids are chosen from a field of hundreds of thousands for their exceptional work, and they spend a week at Broadcom MASTERS doing group tasks, workshops, careers events, serious science projects – and this year, meeting President Obama and getting a private tour of the White House, and having asteroids named after them. I’ve had an incredible time here. These kids are pre- and early-teens, and they’re producing work which would gain high marks at undergraduate level. They’re also great fun to hang out with and talk to. Smart is always interesting, and these guys have smart by the bucketful.

Yellow Team work on their Raspberry Pi project

Eben and I were here to work with the MASTERS group on Raspberry Pi sessions and to talk about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) careers – we had a crazy morning today teaching some Python to one of the smartest groups of kids it’s been my pleasure to work with. We assigned an adult to each of six teams, and each team came out of the session with a hand-coded version of Wormy (Snake, to those who remember the old Nokia phones). We saw multiplayer versions, snakes that got shorter as they aged, magic teleporting golden apples, apple-shooting trees, power-ups that changed the speed of the game, power-ups reversing the controls: all this in a group where only about a third of the kids had ever done any programming before, and only three had any Python experience. One of the things I love about Python is the way there’s no learning hump that you need to endure before you can start using it. The language looks like English: it’s easy to see what commands and variables do, because they’re written in text you recognise. With only a very little guidance and a little sample code, the teams were rocketing through developing six very different games.

Black Team hard at work modifying Snake. Krystal, who has a Raspberry Pi blog, is second from the left. (Click the picture to visit her website.)

There’s such a breadth of enthusiasm here, and a wonderful feeling that the MASTERS teams are meeting other kids who feel the same way they do about science for the very first time. I’m humbled to meet middle school students who are smarter than I am: Hannah, your interplanetary magnetic fields project gave me goose bumps. Caroline, your project on the health of bee hives is something I’m going to be talking about to my colleague Emma (who happens to be a PhD entomologist) as soon as I get back to the UK; and Julie, I am not sure whether your science fair work on superconductors or your spare time work making video game peripherals out of cardboard, tin foil, a couple of drumsticks and a Raspberry Pi are more impressive. (You have my email address – please mail me, because I’d love to feature your setup here!)

If you’d like to read more about the work that brought everybody to DC, there’s a handy PDF you can download, with short descriptions of each science fair project. I recommend it. It’s kind of humbling.

Congratulations to River and Eitan for getting the Samueli Foundation and the Marconi/Samueli awards for your projects. And we’re really pleased to see Krystal Horton and Sean Weber receive Rising Stars awards, which means they will go on to represent Broadcom MASTERS at Intel ISEF (the enormous, 70-country version of Broadcom MASTERS) in May. Keen readers may recognise Krystal’s name: she has a Raspberry Pi blog. She’s only eleven, and she’s brilliant; Eben and I both had a great time with her. Krystal’s project was about oak borer beetle infestations: another thing I’m going to be discussing in great depth with Emma when we get back to the office.

I really loved meeting all the participants this week. I’ve said it before: we in the UK miss out by not having a formal culture of school science fairs. Science fairs give kids the opportunity to transcend their school learning; to follow their own interests to an astonishingly high level, bounded only by their own ability – which is often exceptional; and to broaden their horizons early on. Huge thanks to all the participants, and to all the parents who took time out to come to DC. We had a great time with you, and we’re looking forward to seeing what you accomplish next!


Michael Horne avatar

Truly inspiring stuff – thank you for sharing!

Paul avatar

Perhaps longer term the Pi Foundation could look to kick starting a similar culture of school science fairs in the UK.

Dutch_Master avatar

Great to see these talented youngsters being supported by corporate industry to achieve an even better performance, but it does underline the difference in school curriculum between the US and Europe. In the US, it’s highly competitive: bright students get more space to develop their talents while under-performing classmates are usually left behind. Not so in Europe, where there’s more emphasis on taking the less talented students on to give them equal chances. Both systems have their ups and downs, and I’m not qualified to judge which is better, if any.

It’s also fair (s’cuse the pun :P ) to acknowledge that these types of corporate sponsored fairs (like Broadcom, Intel, Google: BIG yes ;) ) are effectively “concealed” scouting events for the sponsor(s) to get an idea about the next generation of potential developers, trace their progress though the years, keep in contact with them and when time is rife, recruit them into their workforce. I understand their motives and I’m not against the principle, but IMO the sponsor’s aims could be made more clear, at least to participants. (as I also understand these motives are best kept from the competition ;) )

Congrats to all youngsters for making the selection and attending the fair, hope to see your progress here and/or the RPi forums.

JamesH avatar

Why do you think this is concealed, or it’s not clear that this may (or may not) be part of the motivation behind schemes such as this?

I thought it was fairly obvious since big corp rarely does things altruistically. It’s just sponsorship – I don’t think there is any deliberate concealing going on.

Patrick - Bethesda, Maryland, USA avatar

Dutch – You sound like you just came from an Occupy Wall Street Rally and they’ve got you all worked up. :)

Patrick - Bethesda, Maryland, USA avatar

Those Occutards are nothing but a bunch of cry babies. Don’t be like them Dutch. :}

Dutch_Master avatar

No worries chaps! I’m not a grumpy old git (yet! ;) ) although the first “age digit” has reached 4 already :) My point was to make the intentions a bit more clear because it may be obvious for the initiated, those outside of that circle (youngsters!) haven’t got a clue. I only learned about it because someone told me. So, I’m telling others. Mind, I’m not against the principle, but I do like to see some more ethics in corporate dealings with under-aged people. The GOP people would have had me branded a communist, or worse: a socialist even ;) (neither of which I am!)

Bart McCoy avatar

I think the only thing I would comment on is:

“In the US, it’s highly competitive: bright students get more space to develop their talents while under-performing classmates are usually left behind. Not so in Europe, where there’s more emphasis on taking the less talented students on to give them equal chances.”

As a parent of one of the 30 finalists, and after talking with some of the other parents, some of us have experienced the opposite of what you attribute to the U.S. Science fairs are competitive for sure, but even when projects are required by schools (often they are not), the parents are the mentors, not the teachers. Fantastic programs like the Broadcom MASTERS are often funded privately.

The over-riding reality within the U.S. public school systems is that legislative requirements have forced the hand of many teachers to teach strictly to the skills and criteria required by law. There are exceptional schools that focus on the talented-and-gifted students, but that is the exception by far. That’s not intended to be a negative comment, just an observation.

While there are some competitive STEM activities supported and led by the schools, many/most are funded privately or led by volunteer parents, with schools taking more peripheral roles: FIRST Lego Robotics, Math Masters, Math Counts, etc. This varies significantly from state to state. The U.S. education system simply is not filtering/funneling the best & brightest to foster their talents (to the exclusion of others). I would say perhaps it is (justifiably) the opposite, to provide good education to everyone. But it is also in State and National interests to have a more formal (and funded) system for finding and challenging top students.

kashdoller avatar

The US education system the way it is currently set up KILLS any interest middle school children have in science.

Thank god I have my daughter interested in science from the things we do together and our talks and own experienments and documentaries. If she just learned science from what she got from school, she would see it no different than from what she learns for a spelling test.

That isn’t science, it’s memorization.

Science is knowing that the GPS satellites age 4 seconds less each day than everyone on Earth does due to the laws of physics. Memorization is simply knowing how many GPS satellites are in the sky and nothing else. One is fun, interesting, mind provoking. The other is boring and droll.

kashdoller avatar

re: US/Europe – the US is actually starting to get more like Europe in how you describe it. But to answer your question about which is better/worse, let’s put it this way. The US model breeds excellence among the worthy and the European model breeds mediocrity among all. Nothing pains me more than to see genius being brought down and/or not properly utilized to cater to the stupid people. Whoever thought such an ideology like that would work out good for our race?

re: corporations – what on Earth are you talking about here? I think it’s rather apparent to any person observing this whole thing that the company sponsoring would like to invest in their future by associating themselves with these events. If I was in charge of these companies I’d try to get these kids on the payroll as soon as they get out of school too. Can you blame them? And why not? It’s a win-win really. I don’t see where you are going with this one.

Ken MacIver avatar

Back In the Cretaceous wen-I-wuz-a-lad I was a member of BAYS ( British Associaton of Young Scientists.) in Sheffield. We had regular guest lecturers and we were involved in the occasional science fair..

Today it seems that centres of excellence and elite training are restricted to kids who are good at running jumping and kicking balls around. In an attempt to discover future world class sportists for the national interest..

Meanwhile any attempt to help kids who are intellectually gifted and curious, is regarded as a bad form of privileged elitism.

I know we have academy schools etc but it’s encouaging and maintaining the enthusiam that those Broadcom Masters have that is vital.

That’s assuming in 10-15yrs time we want some UK bods around to build The Raspbery-Pi v37, The Skylon, The …….

kashdoller avatar

Centers of excellence for kicking balls, jumping, and running have actually been around for ..hmmm … roughly 2300 years. In fact that is where the original Olympic games were born – Greece.

And they cared about this stuff even more than we do. Crazy eh?

wallarug avatar

At least you got to the states before the shutdown. Hope you made the most of your trip! :)

Tom Fool avatar

Wow! Just downloaded the pdf listed above that has a summary of each of the 30 kids and their projects. All are great but some look like future Nobel prize winners.

Hope to see more of this in the future!

liz avatar

Absolutely astonishing, aren’t they? I have brought back the little booklet describing what they all did, for referring to at points when I’m feeling down in the future and need reminding that there are some AMAZING people out there.

paddy gaunt avatar

Maybe it’s inevitable in a room so completely full of brightness, but the picture of Krystal’s team running snake made me feel that the raspberry pi was allowing itself to be outshone. I think the GPU on the pi is also absolutely astonishing and really very accessible when used in python.

I thought I would add a pi3d snake demo which is here

meltwater avatar

Absolutely loved using Pi3D, I would encourage people to have a go with it. Very impressive results (and shows a little of what the GPU can do).
I liked it so much, I’ve given it a full chapter.

As for the kids, it is excellent to see some bright stars being encouraged. These things are so valuable to encourage youngsters to see a future and work towards developing their skills.


Steve avatar

I totally agree about school science fairs. This would really help to develop talent.

The Raspberry Pi Guy avatar

That looks so cool… Why isn’t there anything like this in the UK? YRS is about as good as it gets – and we don’t get to meet Obama!

The Raspberry Pi Guy

edwinj85 avatar

Considering our computing history as a nation, it’s a damned shame it’s come to that.


The Raspberry Pi Guy avatar

I couldn’t agree more… The UK used to rule the computing world with an iron fist – We used to be the best! The top! Our industry gave the world the Spectrum, the BBC Micro and countless other ‘puters.

Now we have the Pi – the biggest computer company I can name that is British and still in business!

I would love to do something like the Broadcom MASTERS…

The Raspberry Pi Guy

Jan avatar

Things like this are also missed here in Denmark; But for the last decade Bang &Olufsen have had their Innovationcamp, but that is only for a small Group of students spending a part of their summer on this.
Can see that this year it was not held here in Struer

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