The sun shone brightly over the Santa Monica Pier on Saturday morning as electronic music played softly in the background. Gray Bright, comedian and engineer, welcomed Kristina Kipp to the stage to open the Innovation Panel at the 3rd annual S.T.E.A.M. Machines Innovation Fair and Rube Goldberg Machine Competition.
Kipp is a systems engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and she is working on an initiative that aims to launch a new Mars rover in 2020. Kipp brought with her an assortment of drill bits that the new rover is set to use to obtain samples of the Martian soil, and lauded their durability performance. She later explained to a young audience member why the high durability of the drills was crucial to the success of the Mars mission, as the bits could not be repaired or replaced.
Next was Cynthia Erenas, an 18 year old robotics champion in Los Angeles chosen from thousands to speak at the event. Erenas talked about her journey; about how she started out “as a troublemaker” before a teacher helped to put her on the right path by advising that she become an engineer. When she later met Will-I-Am, her life took a turn for the better and he ended up becoming like a brother to her. “The power of mentorships is massive,” Gray reminded the audience.
Speaker Loretta Whitesides – a founder astronaut and consultant at Virgin Galactic – trained as an astrobiologist before co-creating a program founded in the name of Yuri Gagarin, the first human to enter space. Whitesides discussed her creation, “Yuri’s Night,” which is hailed as the World Space Party; with hundreds of events being held around the world each April.
The fourth panelist Bright interviewed was Diana Skaar, the head of business innovation in robotics at X (formerly GoogleX). Skaar’s passion for electronics was awakened as a young girl when she got the opportunity to take apart a Commodore 64 in order to allow it to play more advanced games. She was later introduced to computer programming as a UCLA student, when she built a personal website.
In discussing the thought process at X, Skaar said, “There are three things we [at X] think about when we think about projects: 1) What’s a really big problem to solve? 2) What’s a radical solution to solving that problem? and 3) What’s the break-through technology?”
She couldn’t speak of current projects, but she spoke about X’s Project Loon, the balloon satellite that provides three days of free internet service as it slowly flies over underserved global populations. The “big problem being that billions of people worldwide do not have any Internet access,” Skaar said.
I had the opportunity to speak with Skaar to ask about Google’s ties to the Santa Monica community, and she shared with me how “80 girls from [Santa Monica] middle schools and high schools came to the Google L.A. office where they were basically inspired to try coding.
“Google hosted a workshop where [the students] did a coding exercise. [Google] had a panel where [the students] heard from engineers, including female software engineers.”
Skaar places great focus on gender-equality in science, technology, engineering, and math (often referred to as S.T.E.M.), and she mentioned that “last summer [Google was] one of the first four companies in Los Angeles to host ‘Girls Who Code.’ [The question is] not just why is S.T.E.M. important, but why is it important to get a diverse set of people studying S.T.E.M.”
Skaar elaborated on the importance of studying S.T.E.M. fields when she said that, “by studying S.T.E.M. from a career standpoint, kids have so many more options.”
“You could work on rockets that go into space, you can experience zero gravity forces, you can work on robots. I really believe that the future is based on technology, so having that background in science, technology, engineering, and math will really set you to succeed and help to shape our future.”
The Innovation Panel featuring four outstanding women in S.T.E.A.M. fields was the set point in an inspirational afternoon filled with design-thinking robotics from area schools’ S.T.E.M. clubs. It inspired the young kids and adults alike. And as my interview with Diana Skaar came to a close, I felt motivated by the day’s events to ponder the question she said the X team asks when innovating: “What’s a really big problem to solve?”
Luca Pistor is a freshman at Harvard-Westlake who founded the Santa Monica-based Junior Social Entrepreneurship Summit. To find out more about the program, go to www.jsesinternational.com.