It’s when I entered middle school that I started to excel in math. Maybe excel is too strong a word. I was a good math student, but I wasn’t the best. I worked really hard at it. The award I publicly got at Parent’s Night was “Most Improved”.

Middle school is also when I was first exposed to shop class. I loved everything about it.

The tools, the smell, the potential danger, the way the shop class teacher was like no one else in the building. He was gruff in a way that was different even from the PE teachers. I loved that I could make things my way. My head had always been full of ideas. This opened the door to being able to take those ideas and make them into useful things. Our last project of the class was a competition. Presumably, to see how we could combine all the skills we had learned over the year.

As we learned in Lord of the Flies, only good things can come from pitting predominantly young teenaged boys against one another. The competition was this. There was a magnet track about 20 feet in length. Each student was given the same set of materials. Magnets, batteries, an electric motor, a set of popsicle sticks, and a general set of guidelines of what additional materials could be acquired to design and build a magnetic floating vehicle. The vehicle that could propel itself down the track the fastest would win. Everyone got to work building miniature airboat style vehicles.

While the others were experimenting with the number and angle of popsicle sticks to move the most air and also drawing on flames and other speed accelerating graphics, I didn’t jump to action as quickly. I just kept reading and rereading the rules. Then I set out to clandestinely build my craft. The day of the race arrived. One student at a time would place their vehicle on the track and we would all watch.

Like a 1981 Toyota Tercel trying to go faster than 80 MPH, they violently shook and wobbled down the track, taking minutes to get to the finish, if they made it at all. Everyone knew who the best students in the class were and it showed through in their designs. Their vehicles were composed of triangles for strength, which allowed them to be lightweight. The craftsmanship was meticulous for balance. The propeller design had been derived from scientific and systematic experimentation. The graphics crisp, cool, and fast.

It was my turn.

I set up the vehicle at the start of the track. My design looked blockish and heavy. At the end of the track, I set up the battery, motor, and switch. The motor had a wheel on the shaft with string around it. I pulled the string down the track and connected it to my vehicle. I went back to the end and flipped the switch. The string wound around the wheel and it whipped down the track in seconds.

I proudly smiled and looked around. Nobody else was pleased. The other students began to comment.

“Nobody else did it that way.”

“That doesn’t count.”

“I would have done it that way if I had known we could.”

I am a rule follower. To the extreme. I am an Eagle Scout and hold those values in my heart. I pay on time and I pick up litter. Nowhere in the rules did it say you couldn’t do what I did. I am also a renegade. Mr. Goss, the teacher, was also not pleased. He gave me a brief reprimand about the “spirit” of competition, but I was too high on my landslide record-breaking time. That was a watershed moment. Where everyone else took a path of mostly stirring air with some movement, I pulled with maximum force.

Incremental improvements often aren’t enough to solve big problems. I challenge myself to continue to live up to the gusto and ethos of that young person. My goal has changed from winning to designing products that add tremendous value to others. To paradigm shift the way I look at and solve problems and then face the inevitable “resistance”. I won and that year they changed the rules. I have been the cause of changing rulebooks ever since.

Do you have a story where you had the guts to innovate like a renegade? If it’s awesome we’ll share it and help to inspire, share the message and call to action.


Dan Slaski is the Lead Renegade for Renegade Prototyping and your new secret weapon/best friend for design domination. A Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineer with a long list of credentials to accompany his years of industry experience in fields including the medical, robotics, and military sectors. He has designed assemblies with hundreds of unique parts and moving components that have gone high into the earth's atmosphere, deep below the oceans and everything in between. All of this has contributed to his vast portfolio of knowledge dealing with difficult engineering problems, and a wide repertoire of skills in prototyping, manufacturing, and sourcing. Yet he still finds a way to remain humble. If you have a project that demands success you need to get on his client list ASAP.