Spaces of Invention

Faculty and students all over the country are transforming their learning spaces into Places of Invention.

How do we know?

On March 22, the Lemelson Center hosted our partner NCIIA (National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance) and a student invention showcase, part their annual conference, Open Minds. Part of the program was “Spaces of Invention,” six Ignite talks by students and faculty who describe their Design Kitchens and maker spaces from the collegiate through K-12 arenas. Speakers include:

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!