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The Big Brain Theory: Looking for America’s Next Great Mind


There are TV competition shows that look for the next great dancer, baker, pop star and fashion designer. But the folks at Discovery Channel wanted to set their sights a little higher. They’re looking for America’s next great mind in the field of science, technology, engineering or math. To do this, they gathered together some of the brightest young people in those fields and brought them together for a competition series unlike any other. It’s called The Big Brain Theory and it doesn’t just celebrate smarts, it rewards ingenuity and creativity.

The winner will win a $50,000 cash prize and a one-year contract with WET, a company that designs incredible water features for places such as the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas.


“What you’ll see in this competition is true innovation under hyper-real world conditions: extremely demanding challenges, limited resources and limited time,” said Mark Fuller, series judge and CEO of WET. “The pressure that the contestants face plays out on camera with some who skyrocket with ideas, leadership and invention — and others who do a full phase meltdown under the intense pressure.”

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In last night’s episode, the challenge was feeding the masses. The contestants had to design a machine that could prepare food for a crowd with limited or no human intervention. The final product not only has to work as advertised, but it also has to be aesthetically pleasing and it has to make great food.

The challenge begins with the blueprint round. The contestants are given 30 minutes to brainstorm and draw a rough sketch of their concept. They then try to sell their concept to the judges and the top two designers become the team leaders for the project.

Executive Takeaway: Limiting brainstorming time is an excellent way of teaching your employees to think on their feet. It also encourages brain dumping – where you write down every idea without concerning yourself with its merits or feasibility. Amazing things come out of brain dumps.

The judges choose Amy and Andrew as team leaders.

Andrew is a 27-year-old aerospace engineer who works for the Department of Defense. His concept is a Panini maker. It features cylinders of meat and bread secured to a table which rotates against a cutting blade. A chute carries the slices down to a lower table which holds four conventional Panini presses. An arm closes the press on the sandwich, and a final arm scoops the finished sandwiches on to a plate.

Amy is a 26-year-old mechanical engineering student who specializes in 3-D printing. Her initial concept is to create a 2-D extruding system that will use food shaped molds to create the finished food product.

Once in the shop, Amy simplifies her concept and turns it into a pancake maker. Batter and fillings (such as fruit and chocolate chips) pour out of containers on to a line of elevated griddles. A timer flips the griddle, dropping the finished pancake on to a lower warming griddle and then flips it a second time on to a waiting plate. The final touch is a syrup arm that automatically dispenses a squirt on each pancake.

Amy’s build goes smoothly with plenty of time to test and tweak. Andrew has trouble getting the slicing system to work and the timing is off right up until the reveal. His team barely makes it through.

Executive Takeaway: team members with different skill sets might have trouble finding common ground to start but in the end, mixing up people from different departments will push the team toward a more creative solution.

The two teams put their machines into action on the Santa Monica Pier, turning out food for a horde of hungry tourists. The Panini maker works better than expected but the meat and cheese slices refuse to fall squarely on the bread. As a result, a team member has to monitor each sandwich and repair the stack before it rotates to the pressing stage. A few sandwiches also got caught on the final delivery chute.

Amy’s pancake maker delivered better results. A few of the pancakes stuck to the grill on a flip, but overall their machine didn’t need much human intervention. The big difference was in the aesthetics. The pancake machine was simple but it was fun to watch and captured the spirit of the boardwalk.

Amy’s team won the round and Andrew was eliminated.

The Big Brain Theory has one more twist. On most competition shows, eliminated players are sent home. But on this show, they must remain to help the remaining contestants compete for the prize. In order to motivate them, the producers are offering a second prize – $20,000 to the eliminated contestant who is the best team player.

Executive Takeaway: reward your team players and they’ll keep projects moving forward. It doesn’t have to be cash, click here and here for suggestions for more creative and inexpensive perks.

Watch The Big Brain Theory Wednesday at 7:00 on Discovery.

What Do You Think?

What’s your best tip for fostering a more creative environment in the office? Write it in the comments below or send it to us on Twitter.

More From Payscale

How To Get Your Team Emotionally Invested in Their Work

4 Ideas to Crank Up Your Creativity

Do Creatives Make Poor Leaders?

Photo Credit: Discovery Channel

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