Sparking Young Minds with the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge

On January 17—which happens to be Kid Inventors’ Day—the Lemelson Center launched the 3rd Annual Global Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge. Hosted in collaboration with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, the contest challenges children ages  five to 18 to create an invention that solves a real-world problem. Alone or in groups, kids must work through the invention process, identifying a problem, researching possible solutions, sketching designs, building and testing prototypes, and creating ads to sell their ideas.

Though this may sound a little daunting, young inventors have access to lots of support on the Challenge website as they tackle their projects. Past winners, including Chase Lewis, are serving as Student Ambassadors, answering questions and offering tips to their fellow inventors. Questions like “Where did you get your idea from?” and “How do you know if other people have done your invention?” have generated great advice from the Ambassadors already. Other message boards allow kids to share invention-related books and websites with one another, and even share their invention ideas to get feedback from their peers. (That board doesn’t have any traffic yet, though. I wonder if kids are fearful of their great ideas being stolen…)

As we await this year’s entries (the contest closes on April 11, 2014), here’s a look back at some of the most memorable inventions from the first two years. If these are any indication, this year’s Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge will generate a collection of inventions that are creative, innovative, fun, and inspiring.

The Solbrite


The Cycle Umbrella

The Cycle Umbrella

The Hands-Free Safety Straw

The Hands-free Safety Straw


The Heating Bathing Suit

The Heating Bathing Suit

The Rescue Travois

The Rescue Travois

The Sports Storing Device

The Sports Storing Device

The Sunshine Hat

The Sunshine Hat

The Turbo Scraper

The Turbo Skraper

The Vacuduster

The Vacuduster

Chase Lewis: Kid Inventor

One of the best parts of working for the Lemelson Center is having the opportunity to meet so many cool inventors. In recent years, I’ve met NASA food scientist Vicki Kloeris, roboticist Jason Bannister, skateboarding pioneer Rodney Mullen, and perhaps one of my favorites, Ralph Baer, inventor of the home video game.  I am always inspired by these women and men, and love to hear them talk about how they work, who encouraged them as kids or mentored them as adults, what kinds of challenges they’ve faced and overcome, and what their next big thing might be.

Kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

Last month, I had the opportunity to meet Chase Lewis, another amazing inventor. Part of what’s so impressive about Chase is the fact that he’s just 13. But perhaps more notable is his invention, the Rescue Travois. Chase describes the inspiration for his invention on his website:

“During the 2011 Somali famine, hundreds of children who were too weak to walk were left by the roadside to die when their parents could no longer carry them on the two to three week trek to a refugee center.  When…Chase Lewis read this in the newspaper, he thought no parent should have to do this. He wondered why they did not have a simple transportation device, like a little wagon, to help them carry the children. After speaking with experts, Chase learned that there is a dearth of simple, wheeled transportation in Africa. Most of the simple transportation people had, if any, were wheelbarrows.  Yet most of the Somalis who had to make the treks to the refugee centers were too poor to even have wheelbarrows.”

So Chase set out to invent a new kind of vehicle that would be inexpensive, simple to put together, and easy to operate. He was initially inspired by travois used by Native Americans, but like any good inventor, he thought about how he could improve upon the existing technology and make it even more effective for the people he hoped to help.

Native American Travois

Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian.

When we met, Chase talked about how his idea evolved from initial concept to end product. He described testing different designs for load-bearing capabilities and exploring various materials from which to build the travois. While he initially considered a wooden frame, he eventually settled on bamboo: it’s lightweight, readily available, sturdy, and sustainable. He also modified the existing travois design by adding wheels to make it easier to pull and a “belt” that can be worn around the operator’s waist, leaving arms free to carry a child. Finally, Chase tested his idea by having both children and adults pull the travois to ensure ease of use. Hearing Chase talk about his work really underscored one of the Lemelson Center’s main educational messages—that invention is a process. He conceived an idea, researched possible solutions, and created, tested, and tweaked a prototype until he came up with a workable design.

Testing the invention.

Testing the travois. Photo courtesy of Chase Lewis.

I first learned about Chase and his invention through the Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, which the Lemelson Center has hosted the past two years in conjunction with the Smithsonian Center for Learning and Digital Access and ePals, an online global community for teachers and students.  Chase’s was one of 300 entries in the 2012 contest and garnered the top prize for his age group, including the services of a patent attorney. (Chase doesn’t want to profit from the Rescue Travois, but wants to patent it so that no one else can make money from the design either. He hopes to make the design of the vehicle free and available to all.) But Chase’s work didn’t stop when he entered the contest. He continues to work on the travois, and is currently trying to identify suppliers and manufacturers. He has also met with government and non-profit leaders who he hopes can help him make the travois available to those who need it most.

Lemelson Center Art Molella meets with kid inventor Chase Lewis.

Chase with Lemelson Center Director Art Molella, his friend Janvier, and his mother Michelle Lewis.

As my Smithsonian and ePals colleagues begin to plan the next Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, scheduled to launch in early 2014, I am already looking forward to seeing the next round of inventions. I know there are other young inventors out there who, like Chase, have great invention ideas that can make the world a better place.

In the News: Kid Inventors

Here at the Lemelson Center, we believe that everyone is inventive, even—and especially—kids. Our Spark!Lab is dedicated to inspiring creativity in young people and we’re all so excited to hear about kids and teens flexing their inventive and problem-solving muscles. Here’s a round-up of some inspiring kid inventors:

The 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair Winners

What were you doing when you were a senior in high school? I was most likely inventing new reasons to break curfew, so these kids blow me out of the water.

Ionut Budisteanu, a 19-year-old from Romania, was awarded first place and received the Gordon E. Moore Award of $75,000 for inventing an inexpensive self-driving car. Ionut’s invention uses 3-D radar and mounted cameras that allows the car to detect traffic lanes, curbs, and the real-time position of the car.  All of this for only $4,000!

Eesha Khare, an 18-year-old from Saratoga, CA, received the Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award of $50,000 for inventing a supercharger that can charge a cell phone in 20 to 30 seconds. Eesha’s invention is portable and flexible, and is able to last for 10,000 charges.

Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Award for Youth Achievement

Late last year, our director, Art Molella, participated in the first annual Smithsonian Magazine American Ingenuity Awards. For him, one of the most inspiring moments was the acceptance speech by high school sophomore Jack Andraka, the Youth Achievement winner. Jack invented a paper sensor that can detect a protein linked to pancreatic cancer—for which he won him the grand prize at the 2012 Intel Science and Engineering Fair. Art reported, “Bursting with youthful creative energy, Andraka told us how an uncle’s illness prompted his amazingly simple invention.” Jack’s invention uses only a sixth of a drop of blood and takes only five minutes to produce accurate results.

Spark!Lab Invent It! Challenge Winners

In September, Spark!Lab partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual Invent It! Challenge. The contest challenged students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve it. We received nearly 300 entries!

Each of the three challenges had winners in four different age categories. Winner Chase Lewis, a seventh grader from Chapel Hill, NC, visited the Lemelson Center recently. Chase’s invention was the Refugee Travois, which allows refugees to carry people—children or the elderly—long distances without too much strain on their backs. Chase even made his local news!

Lemelson-MIT Program InvenTeams

InvenTeams are teams of high school students, teachers, and mentors that receive grants up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to real-world problems. Each InvenTeam chooses its own problem to solve. Current InvenTeams are working on inventing wind turbines, a compost water heating system, a bacteria powered battery, and a pedestrian alert system. A team from Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology presented their emotive aid for combating autism at the National Museum of American History in March during the Open Minds exhibition of student inventions hosted by the Lemelson Center and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.

Judging the Invent It! Challenge

UPDATE: Check out the winners here.

In September, Spark!Lab partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual Invent It! Challenge. The contest challenged students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve it. We received nearly 300 entries!

Members of the Lemelson Center team served as judges. As we prepare to announce the winners, they reflect on the contest.

Tanya Garner:

I was definitely surprised by the total number of entries for this year’s contest, of the 30 videos I viewed it was a real treat for me to see so many girls taking on challenges ranging from  fashion mishaps to  handling smelly garbage (as if there was any other kind).

A ten year-old New Jersey inventor created the “Catcher Robbery Report,” a unique system that enabled a camera hidden in a secret compartment of someone’s backpack to remotely send a photograph and data about the thief to the victim/police, which I thought was an interesting problem to address.  Also, I thought the eleven year-old inventor from Turkey cleverly addressed the familiar problem of “stumbling out of bed in the middle of the night into total darkness on your way to bathroom or kitchen for a drink of water,” by creating a pair of “slippers sunshine”—portable motion sensor lights placed in the front of the shoes to help guide the wearer to their destination.

Tricia Edwards:

My favorite part about judging the Invent It contest was seeing the range of problems and challenges the students set out to solve—everything from how to keep your nose warm in the winter to a binder that’s stylish and easier to carry to a snow and ice scraper that you can use from inside your car. (I have to admit that as a person who really dislikes winter and cold weather,  that one was a personal favorite!) Each of the inventors obviously took the “Think It” part of the invention process seriously. I was also amazed at how many of the entries had a strong “Sell It” component. It was clear that the students understood that invention isn’t just about having a great idea; it’s about knowing how to get that idea to market. I was particularly struck by the number of entries that used celebrity endorsements in their marketing. Martha Stewart and the Food Network’s Guy Fieri both made appearances in the entries I judged! All of the student inventors showed so much creativity, ingenuity and inventive thinking, and I am already looking forward to seeing what they come up with next year!

Laurel Fritzsch:

One of my favorite things about judging the ePals contest was getting to see all of the creative solutions kids had for the variety of problems they tried to solve. One little boy was trying to solve his problem of getting too hot when he was sleeping and another was trying to wake up sleepy drivers. The boy who tried to solve his problem of being hot may not have come up with a world changing invention but his solution of replacing some of the pajama cloth with mesh was creative and he went through all the steps an inventor would—including making a prototype, testing it out, and developing ways to improve it. The boy who developed a way of waking sleepy drivers also genuinely went through the steps of an inventor and both boys had a real passion for solving the problem they identified. The best part of judging the contest was seeing pictures or videos of the kids with their inventions. Their pride really came through.

Michelle DelCarlo:

I was surprised that some kids decided to address very serious issues, such as childhood obesity. The invention was a wristwatch-style device that would count calories and alert its user when they hadn’t exercised or ate too much. I was impressed with the level of seriousness most kids took in physically creating their prototypes. Some included images of themselves using sewing machines, stapling, or using interesting materials. I didn’t think they would take it so seriously, so that’s awesome.

Invent It! Challenge: Kindergarteners Solving World Hunger and Arguing Siblings

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by teacher Pat Genovese, whose kindergarten class participated in the Invent It! Challenge where Spark!Lab and ePals challenged students to solve real-world problems through invention. The winners will be announced February 4 and you can vote on your favorites.

In my Kindergarten class, our first semester theme focuses on the big idea that anyone can invent, even kids. In anticipation of the ePals/Smithsonian Invent It! Challenge, students saw a PowerPoint presentation about kids’ inventions that help people, videos of children inventors explaining their ideas, and Inventoons, cartoons about diverse innovations. We read a book about inventor Margaret Knight, learned about the inventions of Leonardo DaVinci, participated in a SKYPE session with a NASA scientist, and explored the inventors honored in the National Gallery For America’s Young Inventors. Students were then ready to work in collaborative groups to brainstorm problems they saw either at home or school, with an emphasis on serving others. It was amazing to witness students’ perception of the world around them and their unique approach to resolving problems.

The biggest ‘aha’ moment occurred in the group who wanted to feed people in their community and then realized that they could solve the global problem of hunger. They invented the Amazing Super Growing Plant Food. This was an incredible insight by five and six year-olds, inspired by the Invent It! process.

On the other end of the spectrum was the group that wanted to solve the problem of arguing siblings. They discussed numerous options, but had difficulty deciding on a tangible invention idea. One student recalled the inventions of Mattie Knight and was excited to share her idea of using a kite. The students decided to invent a cooperation kite that features kind words and pictures of Bible stories to remind children to share and be compassionate. They were excited to inform me that the benefit of their invention is that siblings have to cooperate to fly a kite.

I was continually impressed that my Kindergarteners were able to work in collaborative learning groups on an interdisciplinary project requiring critical thinking skills. My students were able to celebrate their creativity and realize that even though they are small, they can still help make our world a better place.

Calistoga Elementary School 5th & 6th graders decide to… Invent It!

Editor’s Note: In September, Spark!Lab partnered with ePals, an education media company and safe social learning network, for the second annual Invent It! contest. The contest challenged students to think about real-world problems and invent something that could help solve it. We received nearly 300 entries and winners will be announced February 4. But you can help boost this STEM activity by weighing in with your choices of the best student  inventions.

The following is a guest post by teacher Matt Gudenius his class’s participation in the Invent It! contest. Matt’s post first appeared on the ePals Global Community.

Throughout the last few years at Calistoga Elementary School (Calistoga, CA), advanced students have been using ePals resources in various ways, such as writing to email penpals in Italy as part of an Italian-themed GATE program.

Many of these students also take part in the school’s 5th/6th STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) Academy, a project-based learning curriculum designed to extend and apply advanced math skills through engineering and design projects in the areas of robotics and architecture. The idea behind our Academy is that standards-based skills should not just be learned, but should be applied—along with technology tools and techniques—to solve real-world problems. We are always looking for problems to solve and ways to solve them!

So when we received news of ePals/Smithsonian’s 2nd annual invention contest, we were all ears! Being very apropos to our problem-solving projects students were already engaging in, we decided to set aside our LEGO MindStorms robotics and Google SketchUp CAD models for a little while to take part in the opportunity to learn about the process of invention in a broader, more general scope.

We took our time to explore the processes and PowerPoint template provided on ePals, and proceeded to carefully work our way through the steps. The very start was the hardest part! Thinking of problems to solve—when the sky’s the limit and there are no constricting parameters—can be very difficult! Students made claims like “There aren’t any problems to solve!”… to which I replied “There are always problems to solve. Even if they have been solved in certain ways, there are always ways things can be improved.”

With that, students began brainstorming. One challenge is that many students tried to think of an invention before first thinking of what problems needed to be addressed, or the multiple different alternative methods that could be used to solve them. This is a backwards approach to the premise: “Necessity is the mother of invention“, so they were instructed to take a step back and try again; to specify a problem first, then brainstorm possible solutions, and finally to pick one (or a hybrid combination of solutions) that best fits the need.

Once this process was complete, the spark had ignited and we were off to the races—there was no stopping the creativity, diligence, and problem-solving going on inside student brains! Some students came up with grandiose solutions involving electronic components or computer technology (we are, after all, working with robotics!) Others took heed of my advice that “The simplest solution which gets a job done is often the best solution.” These students may not have had the complexity or the “wow factor” of the more technical ideas, but the beauty is that they had the know-how and materials to actually create and test prototypes of their inventions. This is truly invaluable, and it underscores the importance of not biting off more than you can chew!

Although we used the Invent It! PowerPoint template as a guide, we decided it would be best to add a few more details that seemed to be missing. For example, directly after Think It and Explore It comes Sketch It… which we did, but we decided that pictures alone were insufficient to explain how the invention worked. So we have added a “Describe It” slide to go along with Sketch It, in which both words and pictures are combined to explain the construction and function of the invention. This also helps mimic the actual format of real-life patents. And to see examples of just how simple or complex patent drawings can be—and how they use letters and numbers as labels to help illustrate the written text—we took a look at a brief history/evolution of patent drawings.

Additionally, we—especially for those of us who were not artistically-inclined and had ideas too complex to build as prototypes—decided that it would be great to use computer-aided design (CAD) tools to create virtual models of our inventions to give accurate visual representations of them. So students set to work using Google SketchUp to create 3D computer models to scale.

At the end of the day, we’ve learned a lot from this process and feel proud of our completed inventions. We hope to participate again next year!