U.S. Army hosts youth STEM competition at South by Southwest

By Maj. Chad Stoermer; Capt. Kirk WestwoodApril 16, 2024

Youth STEM Day presented by AAL Winner
SXSW 2024 youth STEM Day competition winner Louella Cathell smiles proudly after a fierce battle to the finish line. (Photo Credit: Col. Clay McVay) VIEW ORIGINAL

AUSTIN, TX - In the vibrant setting of South by Southwest, a triumph of innovation unfolded as

local elementary school students competed in a rigorous and fun youth engineering competition hosted by the Army Applications Laboratory.

Ten-year-old Louella Cathell from Kirby Hall Elementary emerged as the winner. She crafted a multi-directional LEGO robot, which was a display of technical skill and problem-solving that earned her a win by mere seconds over nine-year-old Josie Schliemann.

“It was really fun, and I did not expect to win,” Cathell said, despite winning a similar competition last year.

Asked how she might employ her problem-solving skills in the future, she said she would focus on projects “for people who don’t have things you normally need, like food and water and shelter.”

Participants came from youth STEM programs run by iCode and E.S.T.E.A.M. Academy. Ten contestants aged eight to 13 tackled a series of tasks designed to assess their technical acumen, resilience and capacity for innovation under pressure. A panel of three industry professionals judged their work as family and friends cheered them on.

“Empowering youth in Austin…why not?” Erin Romel, director, iCode, said of her program’s determination to make the event possible.

“There is nothing more exciting than to work with a student that is struggling and watch them succeed on their own,” JoaAnn Nolte, co-founder, E.S.T.E.A.M. Academy said.

iCode and E.S.T.E.A.M. Academy joined together to supply the students, materials, and motivation for the kids in the competition.

Judges had similar motivations for donating their time to the competition. “I wanted to encourage young people. I wanted to dedicate my time to give back to community,” Dr. Parastoo Maleki, semi-conductor engineer and molecular biophysicist said.

Other judges included, the competition’s developer Maj. Chad Stoermer, electrical engineer, 75th Innovation Command, and Mike McMillian, senior electrical engineer with Bryan Texas Utilities.

The event evolved from Army Futures Command’s commanding general, Gen. James Rainey’s focus on encouraging STEM education for children and was part of the Army’s sponsorship of South by Southwest.

“It was a lot of fun for the kids and a great way to send them back to the classroom after spring break,” Stoermer said. “It turned out probably better than expected, thanks to the dedication of these parents, professionals and the two STEM programs. I’m hopeful we can do it for a lot more kids next year.”