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

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.