Some of the world's greatest inventors think outside of the box, Carl Engel told a group of students at Da Vinci Academy Wednesday.
Engel, associate partner of Global Delivery Excellence - Process, Methods and Tools for the computer giant IBM, spent Tuesday and Wednesday chatting with middle-school students about the latest innovations in technology.
The IBM executive works from his home in Pendergrass and was put in touch with the school by a friend and parent of one of the children.
"This is a unique opportunity for students," Da Vinci teacher Gary Martin said. "We hope to open their eyes that they could have the skills to develop the technology coming out in the next 10 years."
The seminar was also designed to generate awareness of the technology industry and future opportunities in the field, Engel said.
Engel showed the sixth-graders video of IBM scientists working to create the world's most advanced "question answering" machine called Watson. They hope to test it on the television show "Jeopardy!" The supercomputer would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting them ask questions instead of typing keywords, Engel said.
"They're getting a computer to think like a human. That's pretty cool," sixth-grader Kobey Mumpower said.
The children were also surprised to learn about a new software that allows people to unlock car doors and set radio stations from their cell phones.
To give students a flavor of the working world, Engel told the students they were "IBM employees" for the day. He had the students create a puff mobile, a vehicle that could only be moved by puffs of air. The children's teams were selected for them, similar to a workplace.
The project was meant to challenge their problem-solving skills and innovation.
"This is the same project I use for college students," Engel said.
Students could use a straw, scotch tape, Lifesavers, paperclips and a sheet of paper for construction. After completion, there was a race to test which team built the best moving vehicles.
Some teams created objects that resembled cars with paper clip frames and Lifesaver wheels as others constructed a type of sail for their craft.
Christopher Spradlin's group had the idea to simply remove the roll from the scotch tape to use as a vehicle. It travelled the farthest, and Engel said he was impressed with their creativity.
"We decided, let's not do something with four wheels. We just wanted something efficient and simple," Spradlin said.
"This really united us as a group. Maybe we'll have to design a type of car together someday," his teammate Noam Miratsky said.
Martin said combining action with engineering, math and science was a good way to energize the students.
He added that he liked Engel's point that diversity is important in the technology industry, not just in terms of demographics but in interest.
"If you just have a group of engineers working on a project, you only have an engineer's perspective," he said. "This was good for the kids. Students tend to clique up but this had them interacting and becoming more comfortable in a diverse environment."