The University of Tokyo

Education and Innovation

The Famous “Egg Drop Contest”
― a Creativity Education Class that has Continued for over 20 Years

XXX

Professor Ikuta is known for his pioneering efforts in the new fields of medical robotics and micro-machines, but he has also continued carrying out unique initiatives in the field of creativity education. One of these is the “egg drop contest,” a program that has continued for 23 years, in which participants compete against each other by attempting to drop eggs from a height of 30 meters without breaking them.

Of course, if eggs are simply dropped from such a height, they will break. Participants are provided with one thick sheet of B5-size paper and wood glue. Using these items, they have to create their own contraptions that they think will protect their eggs. However, 30 meters above the ground is equivalent to the height of a 10-story building. Is it really possible to protect an egg that is falling from that high?

“At first we provided participants with A3-size paper,” Professor Ikuta says. “As the success rate started to increase, however, we began using increasingly smaller sheets until we got down to B5 paper several years ago. Recently I held a competition in a class for first-year students during the Autumn Semester of 2013, and 8 of the 43 students were successful. At an open day at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology in early June, more than 150 people gave it a go, and roughly 10% of the participants were successful. And most of them were elementary school students. However, the success rate for fourth-year engineering students is actually lower than theirs.”

According to Professor Ikuta’s analysis, there are four different methods that can be employed to keep the egg from breaking: reducing the drop velocity, lessening the blow of the impact, a combination of those two methods, and thinking outside the box. At the open day competition mentioned above, successful contraptions included one that was modeled on a sausage cut to resemble an octopus, as well as a parachute-like apparatus. In the past there have been wonderful contraptions that even Professor Ikuta hadn’t considered, but he keeps the designs secret to prevent people from copying them in future competitions.

During the competitions, when the students acting as judges raise their flag indicating a successful drop, cries of “wow!” and “yeah!” ring out ― the contests are always very lively affairs. Students these days tend to be considered a generally unenthusiastic group, but the spirited reaction of students to successful egg drops hasn’t changed in the 20-plus years the contests have been held, observes Professor Ikuta.

Of course the competition isn’t all just fun and games. Students submit reports both before and after their egg drop, and they have to give a presentation in front of the others about the concept of their design, the parts of their design that were particularly creative or original, the differences between their design and those of others, and either why their design was successful or the reasons for their failure.

“The primary objective is to make students realize that they lack a sufficient amount of imagination,” Professor Ikuta explains. “The class hinges on this realization. Other objectives of the class are enhancing one’s ability to communicate one’s ideas to others and practicing how to analyze results, but special emphasis is given to the conceptual element. Of course specific ideas are important, but I believe that when it comes to innovation, the most important aspect is concepts.”

For example, the concept for the snake-shaped active endoscope that Professor Ikuta developed as a postgraduate student was “painless colonoscopies,” but the specific idea was “a shape-memory alloy robot that wiggles its way forward.” In the case of the Disneyland theme park, the concept is “a magical kingdom that adults can also enjoy,” but the specific idea behind it is “an extraordinary place populated by a variety of characters.” Both the snake-shaped endoscope and Disneyland were unable to come into being without first existing as concepts.

“Although the idea that the person who comes up with an original idea is the most deserving of respect is deeply ingrained in Western culture, unfortunately this isn’t the case in Japan. And I think that makes it difficult to nurture talented people capable of innovating.”

The reason why Professor Ikuta is putting so much effort into creativity education at the University of Tokyo through the use of egg drop contests and his “Silly Seminar” is because he is teaching the youths who will be future leaders in each sphere of endeavor in Japan. If they go on to lead society with an understanding of the importance of concepts, that viewpoint will gradually spread throughout Japan, and Japan as a whole will therefore be able to evolve. Let’s put our faith in Professor Ikuta’s concept.

1: Example of a past contraption.
2: Students run the competitions themselves.
3: A student presentation. The contraption modeled after an octopus-shaped sausage can be seen on the screen!
4: Professor Ikuta’s light-driven nanorobot is one millionth of a millimeter in size. It can grasp and cut cells.

Koji Ikuta

Koji Ikuta

Professor, Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology
http://www.micro.rcast.u-tokyo.ac.jp/