RBCIt’s that time of year again, when we get together with a motley collection of friends for the annual running of the Red Bull Creation challenge! This is the third year we’ve participated in the competition, a quirky contest of ingenuity, endurance and good humor.

The first year we participated, we made it IMG_5570into the semi-finals with our Red Bull Alarm Clock entry. We were cheered on as the Little Red Bull Team that Could, competing against a dozen bigger, better equipped and more experienced teams, largely housed in big makerspaces across the country. Our goal, beyond having a really good time (which we did!), was to raise awareness of the maker IMG_1359-ccommunity and the value of spaces to build and create together. (Now they’re blossoming all over the place!) Last year, we were just happy we didn’t flood the Land O’Lakes Library with our Spectrapiano entry , a wonderfully elaborate and fate defying concoction of electronics and water.

This year, the qualifying challenge is more cerebral in nature: Identify a specific need in your community, or something you think could be improved, and propose a solution. It could be an idea that makes the world a better place, or if nothing else, a more fun and interesting place.

What? one of our team members asked. Nothing to build?! Just brain cells.

The fun – and power – of contests like Red Bull Creation is the game based knowledge-making the competition inspires, and opportunities to think not just creatively, but critically, especially with the qualifier this year.

In a recent opinion piece for the New York Times (Young Minds in Critical Condition), Michael Roth, President of Weslyan College, observed, “Liberal education in America has long been characterized by the intertwining of two traditions: of critical inquiry in pursuit of truth and exuberant performance in pursuit of excellence. In the last half-century, though, emphasis on inquiry has become dominant, and it has often been reduced to the ability to expose error and undermine belief. The inquirer has taken the guise of the sophisticated (often ironic) spectator, rather than the messy participant in continuing experiments or even the reverent beholder of great cultural achievements.”

A good education he says, should “foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world — and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”

Not to over invest pure old Red Bull fun with the burden of existential purpose and meaning, but creative exercises like RBC require exactly that vital “messy participation” that finds inspiration in unexpected places.

In this particular qualifier, teams are being asked to basically do a thought experiment, starting with a really broad topic:

Identify a specific need in your community

and then asking for the team to propose a solution and describe or illustrate that solution in a three minute video.

To have any chance of being successful, teams are going to have to take that challenge from the vague to the specific, Susan-Engel-320x240and that in itself is a creative exercise. In Tackle any Problems with these Three Questions, Warren Berger, author of A More Beautiful Question, says the best way to solve problems is to ask good questions, to exercise thoughtful inquiry.

He suggests asking Why, What if, and How, in that order.

““Why” questions are ideal for coming to grips with an existing challenge or problem–helping us understand why the problem exists, why it hasn’t been solved already, and why it might be worth tackling. “What if” questions can be used to explore fresh ideas for possible improvements or solutions to the problem, from a hypothetical standpoint. When it’s time to act on those ideas, the most effective types of questions are practical, action-oriented ones that focus on “how”: how to give form to ideas, how to test and refine them with the goal of transforming possibility into reality.

We accept a lot without challenge – the things we hear on television, read in popular media, see on the Internet – and when we just accept without questioning, we become complacent or, as Michael Roth said, simply cynical commentators with uninformed opinions. Both outcomes can lead to a life on auto-pilot, says Berger, where we feel un-empowered, at the mercy of life instead of in control of our lives.

Getting in the habit of asking questions – and knowing what questions to ask when, says Berger, “is good for us. It can help to open up new possibilities in our lives. It’s a first step in solving problems. It makes us more successful as leaders. People who ask a lot of questions tend to be more engaged in their lives, more fulfilled, and happier.”

So now our Eureka! Factory Team has before us the wide open question of “What is a specific need in our community?” The possibilities are endless!