The next foodborne illness outbreak may be solved or thwarted by a 12-year-old. FIRST LEGO League, a program launched by inventor Dean Kamen to inspire young people to participate in science and technology, has announced that the target of its 2011-2012 challenge is food contamination. The hundreds of thousands of 9- to 14-year-olds in 61 countries who participate in the challenge will be called on to research any related topic—such as unsterile processing and transportation or unsanitary preparation and storage—and propose solutions.
Teams of up to 10 science-minded kids, each with one adult coach, will also build, test, and program an autonomous robot to solve a set of food safety missions involving such issues as safe transportation and preparation, pest control, food temperatures, and pollution.
Every September, FIRST LEGO League releases a themed challenge based on a real-world scientific topic. Past challenges have been based on topics like biomedical engineering, nanotechnology, climate, quality of life for the handicapped population, and transportation.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations have offered to be resources to the teams, according to Kim Wierman, program manager for FIRST LEGO League. “Many of our past teams have filed for patents as a result of some of their ideas,” she said. “You will be astonished at the solutions these kids will come up with to improve food safety, which is such a timely issue. Their imaginations don’t limit them.”