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Youth Voices: Lewis Reining

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Youth Voices commentator Lewis Reining found a new cultural identity that went beyond race or nationality.
Youth Voices commentator Lewis Reining found a new cultural identity that went beyond race or nationality.

Countless wistful students have sat bored in class, wishing they had a machine to transport them beyond the schoolyard gates. Commentator Lewis Reining got to build one, and says what he learned during the process rivaled some of the science and math lessons he sat through in high school.

It's a chilly Saturday night, mid-school year. My friends and I are huddled around a small wood stove in my dad's workshop. We're building a contraption using a battery-powered drill, a bicycle and rolls of duct tape.

We're taking part in "Odyssey of the Mind," a worldwide design competition. The challenge: to build a device that can transport a person 10 feet using battery power.

For five months, six days a week, we construct our masterpiece. Saws buzz through wood, screwdrivers twist on metal as we frantically plot our next steps.

How light can we make it? Do we need a bigger bicycle, a more powerful drill?

Schoolwork is an unwelcome intrusion. In class, my sleepy brain struggles to memorize the noble gases on the periodic table.

But when I work on Odyssey, my brain is alert as we devise daring and creative solutions.

It's a grueling process, but to us, our machine is a wondrous invention: a chain reaction set off by pressing the button of a power drill, which turns the wheels of a bicycle, that pulls pistons in a plastic pipe, and generates enough air pressure to propel a homemade scooter ten feet across the room.

It's the kind of machine that would make Rube Goldberg proud.

On judgment day, our creation malfunctions. But what we take away from Odyssey isn't about winning or losing. My school classes provide us the tools we need, but Odyssey gives us space to experiment with them.

In today's fast-paced, competitive work environment, the opportunity to think creatively is priceless. We need people who can collaborate, discover and invent, rather than simply memorizing and reciting.

Think of Facebook. It wasn't built from a textbook. It was created outside of class, by a few college students during their spare time.

Imagine the possibilities if every potential Mark Zuckerberg was afforded an opportunity to experiment inside America's classrooms.

Lewis, who attends the University of Virginia, participates in WAMU's Youth Voices program in partnership with Youth Radio and D.C.'s Latin American Youth Center.

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