We’ve known for decades that creativity is innate. When researchers George Land and Beth Jarman tested preschool age children for creativity in the 1960s, 98 percent scored at the genius level. By high school, the same group of children tested at 12 percent. The question of what is happening in our school systems to make us less creative is incredibly important, because creativity is at the root of problem-solving, and there is no shortage of problems in need of solutions today.
Looking back, how many of us remember that student who spent more time looking out of the window than paying attention to the teacher? You know, the student who just wasn’t engaged — who didn’t stand out, who never raised their hand, who faded away. We all knew they were different, but we didn’t know why. Students like these, who are being left out, need to be given the right opportunities to shine and have their voices be heard, because they have the ability to change the world. What they need is a chance, something to spark their imagination.
That’s what inventing does. I know, because I was that student. But growing up and going to school in the 60s, I was never exposed to the invention process. If I had, the trajectory of my life would have looked very different. Instead, I struggled and suffered. Only recently have I begun to accept and even celebrate the differences that led me to fail school but become a successful lifelong entrepreneur.
At the same time our education system is making students less creative, there’s an urgent need to expose a wider swath of young people to innovation for the health of our economy. In a bombshell report published by the Equality of Opportunity Project at Stanford a few years ago, economist Raj Chetty and his team found that if women, minorities, and children from low-income families invented at the same rate as white men from high-income families, there would be four times as many inventors in the United States. Because inventors with different backgrounds are attracted to solving different problems and bring different insights to the table, inventor identity matters.
To increase participation in the innovation economy and put creativity back at the forefront of learning, where it belongs, there’s a growing movement of science and technology educators supporting invention education in K-12 classrooms.
A key way in which invention education differs from the traditional STEM framework is that the student is asked to identify the problem they want to research and design a solution for. Because every student can identify a problem (whether experienced personally by them or someone else in their lives), invention curriculum is inherently inclusive and engaging. Documenting the process of invention (which is to say, failure) is as important, if not more, than the actual outcome.
For example, all of the 120,000 students who participated in Invention Convention this year — a free K-12 curriculum and competition program powered by The Henry Ford in Detroit — were asked to maintain a logbook detailing their brainstorming sessions, market research, process of ideation, designs, prototypes, tests, and pitches. The Invention Convention program evolved from the STEMIE coalition, a non-profit whose aim is to formalize project-based invention and entrepreneurship education across the world. (STEMIE, which stands for STEM + Invention & Entrepreneurship, partnered with the Henry Ford to expand the program a few years ago.)
This year, Invention Convention affiliates from 16 states sent 440 finalists to compete at U.S. Nationals, which were held virtually and judged by 600 volunteers, myself included. (In 2018 and 2019, the Invention Convention national competition was held in person on the floor of the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.) You can tune in to see the winning inventors during the awards ceremony tomorrow, which will be broadcast on the Invention Convention Facebook page beginning at 7pm Eastern.
The democratizing power of invention education.
Larry Plank has been overseeing science education at the district level for Hillsborough County public schools in Florida for more than a decade, a period over which he’s raised about $34 million in funds for STEM. This year, every elementary school student in his district learned about inventing and the invention process during their regular school day — all 102,000 of them.
Plank pointed out that while science is often taught as a collection of facts, in reality it is inseparable from the inventing process.
“Everything in science is observed or measured, and to measure it, you have to have a tool that was engineered. You can’t tease them apart,” he explained. “Our kids are not just asking scientific questions, they’re answering, ‘How do I get better data from an experiment, or how do I create something that works a little bit better?’”
Making invention curriculum mandatory was a natural extension of the experiential learning opportunities he and the Tampa Bay STEM Network have longtime championed, including a successful partnership with the Museum of Science in Boston and its K-5 engineering program.
“It’s through these types of activities that the most unsuspecting child is the one who steps up and does the great job. You see that they get it, even if they’re not good at taking a science test,” Plank explained. “Opportunities for kids where there isn’t a right answer, where they have to create their own solution and justify what they’ve created, learning a little bit more math and science along the way, give students a voice.”
Every year, the non-profit Chicago Innovation trains more than 150 local educators from around 60 schools, libraries, and youth centers in invention curriculum. Between 300 and 450 K-8 students compete at their annual regional competition, with about 50 students moving on to compete at the national level. In 2020, 65 percent of the regional competitors were girls and 61 percent were minorities.
“We appeal to a wide range of students from traditionally underrepresented groups in STEM because, for them, we’re a problem-solving program,” explained Allison James, program director of the Chicago Student Invention Convention. “They are less likely to bring their preconceived ideas about themselves and their math and science abilities to the table because we just ask them, ‘Hey, what do you care about? What’s a problem in your life?’ The program challenges imposter syndrome by emphasizing topics that students are passionate about.”
In addition to creativity and problem-solving, Brenda Payne’s experience as a teacher convinced her that one of the most important skills children can learn is how to effectively communicate. All three skills are core components of the Invention Convention curriculum. Payne is a longtime invention education advocate who has led the California Invention Convention, which involved 6,000 students this year, since its inception in 2016.
“We have no idea what the future is going to look like, so we can no longer prepare kids by giving them discrete skills. We have to provide students with opportunities to think much more broadly, so that they are able to solve the problems of their future,” she told me. “This gives them the platform to learn how to communicate those ideas to other people.”
Raising the next generation of inventive thinkers and doers.
As a team of high school students from Florida, Jonathan Walker and Alex Johnson won a patenting award in 2020 for their invention of an inexpensive wearable device that translates speech into Braille and Braille into text, enabling real-time conversation between the audibly and visually impaired.
In an interview, Walker emphasized the value of learning soft skills, including how to collaborate and delegate tasks, in addition to teaching himself how to use new resources for makers like the open-source electronics platform Arduino.
Receiving feedback from the competition judges was both reassuring and invigorating.
“The fact that they thought our device had legitimate potential for the real world was just an amazing feeling,” said Johnson, who is now a rising sophomore at Yale pursuing an electrical engineering and computer science joint major. Both inventors are committed to becoming entrepreneurs to bring products that help people to life. This summer, Johnson is interning at the innovative international healthcare non-profit iRespond, which uses biometric technology to solve identity issues.
Walker competed in Invention Convention again this year as well as the International Science and Engineering Fair. Just this week, he learned that his invention of a new kind of pill management system won the grand prize in an invention contest administered by Texas Instruments.
When asked what advice he would give other inventors, Walker replied, “There’s no such thing as a dumb idea. If you have an idea, write it down. Even if it seems bad at first, one little tweak can make a horrible idea a great idea…. If you’re passionate about the problem and you know that it exists for at least someone and you want to help them, then keep pursuing it.”
Raytheon Technologies, the aerospace and defense research, development, and manufacturing company, has been a partner and sponsor of Invention Convention U.S. Nationals for five years. Randy Bumps, head of global corporate social responsibility, told me that investing in supporting the next generation of boundary pushers was a natural fit for a company that is composed, at its heart, of inventors.
“The thing that made Invention Convention so appealing is how accessible it is,” he explained. “You don’t need a huge kit of parts that costs thousands of dollars. You don’t need an elaborate laboratory or a well-sourced classroom. In many ways, you don’t even need a lot of adult support so long as you have a basic understanding of the scientific process.”
Because Raytheon Technologies and others like it need access to a large pool of talented, young inventors, the company got involved early on by providing the seed funding and board support needed to scale a version of the smaller, state-level conventions into the program’s current national incarnation.
Bad students may become amazing inventors.
The benefits of project-based invention education for children are nearly too abundant to name. Not only do students practice skills that have been identified as essential to thriving in the 21st century workplace, they hone their sense of curiosity and empathy. They learn the value of grit. They’re encouraged to dream and imagine, which are essential for creativity to flourish, and then empowered with information about what to do next and how to take action.
This year, I got to experience the magic of Invention Convention for the first time as a virtual judge at the national level. As I watched videos of fourth graders presenting their inventions, I marveled at their creativity and problem-solving abilities. But I was struck by something else even more. These children beamed with self-confidence. On the whole, they were extremely poised. As they expressed themselves, I saw them tapping into their true greatness.
I’ve made a career out of being an independent inventor. But, looking back, my experience in school could not have been more different. I was never confident, nor poised. I did not want to be called upon. Being asked to speak in front of a group terrified me. I never discovered my creativity. What I wanted was to disappear.
For someone like me, school never came easily. I knew that I was different, but it wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, a learning disability. (I cannot make out the differences between and among the sounds of letters in the alphabet. As a result, spelling is nearly impossible and pronouncing words correctly is difficult.)
I’m hardly alone: According to Sally Shaywitz, an M.D. and co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, dyslexia is actually very common, affecting about 20 percent of the population and 80-to-90 percent of those with learning disabilities. I became an entrepreneur partly because I feared I was unemployable. This will come as no surprise to those who are aware of the well-established relationship between dyslexia and entrepreneurship.
I wish I had been given the opportunity to discover my inventiveness when I was younger. Because the reality is that we form our sense of self at a very young age, and improving my self-esteem has been a battle since childhood. The power of inventing is real; I know because it saved me. It enabled me to define my true self. It led me to discover that I do belong and eventually even feel proud that I’m different. It allowed me to shine. I just wish it hadn’t taken so long.
Invention education is important because it teaches children that problems should be solved, and that they themselves possess the ability to do so. It ushers them on a journey of self-discovery, which is priceless not only for them as individuals, but for society at large. Because to solve our most pressing problems, we need more individuals who are inspired, determined, and able to put forth creative solutions — in other words, we need more inventors.
Want to help inspire the next generation of problem-solvers? Visit inventionconvention.org to learn how you can get involved in the invention education movement as a judge, sponsor, partner, affiliate, and/or educator.