Building on the success of last year’s inaugural program, the TOMODACHI Toshiba Science & Technology Leadership Academy hit the ground running on August 5 for seven days of mind-stretching visits, lectures, hands-on activities and presentations, all geared to help students from the US and Japan answer some big questions about the world tomorrow.
As a high-tech company, Toshiba constantly has its eye on the future. In addition to creating technologies and products that will contribute to that future, it also seeks to inspire people who can help shape it, by promoting science and technology education programs around the world. The ExploraVision program in the US encourages kids in kindergarten through to 12th grade to imagine tomorrow’s solutions for today’s problems. A nationwide program in China inspires science and math teachers to achieve excellence in the classroom. Toshiba Youth Club Asia invites selected high school students from ASEAN to Japan, to consider Asia’s problems and future with Japanese counterparts. And then there is TOMODACHI.
The TOMODACHI Toshiba Academy. TTA as everybody calls it, brings together eight students from the US and nine from Japan, along with teacher advisors. It’s based on mixed groups and sharing experiences, with an emphasis on collaborative team work and cooperation. Building on the success of last year’s inaugural program, TTA this year spread its wings to include a teachers’ program, and also brought back some of last year’s students as teaching assistants, three from the US and two from Japan.
The participants in TTA came together in Fuchu in suburban Tokyo on August 4. The next day, shrugging off jet lag, students, teaching assistants, teachers and program organizers from the US met their Japanese counterparts to break the ice and hear about the week to come. And quite a week it was.
The core of TTA is STEM education—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—and thinking about how to apply STEM to real problems. TTA does this in two ways: presenting the students with an engineering problem; and requiring them to make a presentation on how to improve a city facing real-world problems.
The engineering problem is simple: working in four groups, build a tower. And while the towers may be built of straw, they have to be constructed to withstand simulations of a typhoon-level wind and a major earthquake. The students learned how to do that by following the engineering design process: define the problem; research it; develop possible solutions; choose the best; create a prototype. They also got some help… and some special help.
The help came in the form of a visit to Tokyo Skytree, at 634 meters the world’s tallest tower, and currently the second-tallest structure, after the Burj Khalifa. This was more than just awe-inspiring sightseeing (but if you have the chance to visit Skytree, grab it with both hands), as it included a lecture which was explained both the technical problems that had to be overcome and the aesthetic values that went into the design—including a profile that follows the line of a samurai sword.
The special help was special indeed, the Science Guy himself, Bill Nye. Bill was reprising his participation last year, and started off as anybody who’s seen his famous US TV program would expect: a fun introduction to real science that solves problems. He pointed out to the students the power of the triangle in construction, how it adds resilience to structures. And that certainly came out in some great tower designs. Bill stayed with TTA throughout its duration, lending an ear when asked and always ready to lend a hand.
The second challenge, the presentation, is about applying modern know-how to cities contending with modern problems: population density, congestion, power shortages, poor healthcare and the like. The essence is to analyze and understand what’s going on and to find technologies that can contribute solutions. To help them do this, the students visited the Toshiba Science Museum in Kawasaki, toured the Toshiba Smart Home to get a glimpse of the low carbon hydrogen economy, and learned how scary a big earthquake can be at the Life Safety Learning Center. This, combined with the advice from teachers, fueled late-night discussions and preparation of final presentations.
Of course, TTA is intellectually tough and stretching, but it leavens that with a chance to see something of Japan. A visit to Asakusa, Tokyo’s old center and home of traditional culture, offered the opportunity to visit Sensoji, the city’s most famous temple. Milling around its sprawling grounds, the students were encouraged to talk to tourists and locals, and find out their opinions of Tokyo and Japan. On the Sunday of the program, all the participants literally headed for the hills, to climb the 599 meter (1,965 ft) Mt. Takao, traditionally a home to Tengu a large-nosed Shinto god that can take the form of a bird. Once they had hiked the mountain, the TTA team revived themselves by slurping down soba, before heading back to Fuchu for more work on last-day presentations.
The closing day was quite an event. A crowded auditorium. Dignitaries from the US embassy in Japan, the US-Japan Council, the National Science Teachers’ Association and Toshiba. Guests and observers. Nervous students…
In keeping with the expanded scope of TTA, there were more presentations this year. The teachers who took part in their own development program shared their thoughts on the program, and the TAs, veterans from last year, shared memories and impressions of this year. But the main event was the presentations by the four groups.
To quickly recap, they had to identify a city, analyze problems and propose solutions. The Green team kicked off with Sendai in Northern Japan, and proposals for a thriving community protected from future tsunami. Yellow countered with Bago in Myanmar, a community struggled to recover from devastating monsoons and landslides. The Red team focused attention on San Salvador in El Salvador, a poor, gang-ridden city that has had to contend with six quakes of magnitude of five or more in the last 64 years. Blue focused on Manila, and the many challenges facing one of Asia’s most haphazard cities.
All four clearly stated the problems, and elaborated solutions ranging from the environment to communications, energy and healthcare. It was all pretty impressive.
The efforts of the students were commended by Mr. Akashi Suri, the Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer at the US Embassy, and Mr. Shiro Saito, Corporate Vice President of Toshiba and General Manager of the Corporate Research & Development Division.
The event was closed in stirring style by Bill Nye. Taking the stage, he talked of a world of nine billion, the challenges to come, the need for optimism and the understanding that technology had to lead the way. He emphasized to the students the need for advances in energy, decentralization, desalination and a CO2 usage fee; and most of all he reminded them that they were the future. In stirring tones that turned a personal motto into a battle cry, he looked intently at the students and told them, “Change The World.”
It looked as though they were listening, and ready for action.