The Young Scientist Challenge is an Experience I’ll Never Forget

YSC Ambassador Abigail “Astronaut Abby” Harrison shares her experience at this year’s challenge event.

It feels like not too long ago I was a “kid scientist", with big dreams of changing the world and a long way to go. So when I was asked to be a guest judge for the 2017 Young Scientist Challenge, and meet 10 kids just like me, I jumped at the opportunity.

Upon walking into the 3M Innovation Center I was filled with excitement over having the opportunity to help shape these young scientists to their full potential. Together, the finalists and I got to explore the incredible world of the 3M campus. We visited 3M’s anechoic chamber, which is specially designed to be one of the quietest rooms in the world, and their Graphics Lab, where scientists and engineers innovate ways to put graphics on anything and everything.

The tour was a great way to kick off my 3M experience for two reasons. First, I got to see so much cool stuff I’d never put much thought into before. How do you coat a car in color? How can you put a 40ft graphic on an airplane? How do road signs get their unique reflective properties? There are so many things we see daily in our lives but that we never really think about. We take these things for granted, but they had to come from somewhere and someone. The scientists and engineers at 3M are innovating and producing many of these things which improve our lives every day.

Another reason why the tour was so unique for me was that I got to watch the finalists become awed and excited about what they were being shown. These are the students who are going to help shape our world in the future- perhaps something which they saw that day will inspire them to create, design, and explore. Every student should have the opportunity to be exposed to hands-on science and engineering- doing so truly opens paths for young people, paths they may have never even dreamed of before.

I spent a lot of one-on-one time with the finalists, and they blew me away. I wasn’t just impressed by their level of intelligence - after all, I expected them to be smart - but more-so by their level of passion about science, the world, and their determination to solve the problems they see in it.

While with the finalists I heard about their families, their pets, their inventions, their hopes for the future, their worries about the competition, and their initial introduction into science. One of the most memorable moments for me came when I was sitting and talking with one of the finalists, Kathryn, on the bus back from the tour.  She looked at me and said, “You know, I wanted to go to Mars and be an astronaut when I was little.” And I asked her, “Do you wish you’d continued following that dream?” And she said, “No! I’m absolutely happy that I didn’t pursue that because I love what I’m doing now. But that love of science is what helped me get here. And also… space is kinda scary- too scary for me to go to, but maybe I can help get you there!” That moment stands out in my mind because that is what my organization, The Mars Generation, stands for: the idea that space and STEM can inspire young people to find passions in life to pursue and ways to positively impact the world.

Overall, my experience at the Young Scientist Challenge is one I’ll never forget. As I head back to school, I’ll be reminding myself of these incredible finalists, and their boundless enthusiasm - a reminder why I too, am pursuing a career in science.