When you look at the challenges the world is facing, there is a temptation to become depressed, apathetic and cynical. These problems are so complicated, how can they ever be solved? Who among us dares to try? We need leaders who are not afraid to challenge the status quo.
The good news is that there is a way to nurture these leaders and it is already growing across the country – it’s called invention education.
Invention education differs from other educational frameworks that support innovation, such as STEM, because it puts the student in the proverbial driver’s seat. Rather than being assigned a problem and instructed how to solve it, it’s up to the student to identify a problem for which they want to design a solution. As they explore the problem of their choice and begin to develop possible solutions, the student is asked to consider the experiences of others, which strengthens their empathy. As part of their curriculum, students hone their ability to communicate their ideas clearly and convincingly.
If all invention education taught students to be inventive, that would be significant. But the benefits extend far beyond inventions. Learning how to identify and solve problems is an antidote to powerlessness. It anchors in young people the idea that there are problems worthy to be resolved and in fact can be solved. It teaches them how to approach others for help, increasing their ability to progress in every area of their lives.
The teenage inventors I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing are confident and highly capable. They lead now, not future leaders.
Here’s a snapshot of their lives as young inventors.
Samaira Mehta is a 15-year-old Bay Area entrepreneur and STEM attorney who designed and marketed her first product—a board game that teaches coding concepts to children—before high school.
The game was a solution to a problem she faced as a 6-year-old, which was that her friends didn’t find coding fun or interesting. Could she convince them otherwise? Making a physical game based on a digital process is unusual, Mehta points out.
“As a kid working in the space of innovation, one of the biggest benefits we have is that our brains aren’t limited to possibilities. We can think of things that may or may not be possible,’ she explains.
She started to think of herself as an inventor and a CEO when she realized she was creating a solution that would have an impact on people. Today, she estimates that the three board games she’s launched — all of which simplify complex concepts — have reached more than 25,000 students. Now her goal is to help a billion kids learn to code because she believes it’s an essential skill. To that end, she launched “Encode as easy as 1234last year, an online program that uses gameplay to introduce AI and coding.
More recently, she has been applying her strengths as an innovator to the field of medical research. Her creation of a platform to aid in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer – which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning – won first place at the 2022 California State Science Fair.
According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, while ovarian cancer is the 11th most common cancer in women, it is the fifth leading cause of all cancer-related death among women. Mehta was inspired to focus on this issue after losing her science teacher’s mother to ovarian cancer and her discovery that ovarian cancer was being overlooked by the medical community.
“When I saw a problem and there was absolutely no good solution for it in today’s world, I decided, well, what if I just create the solution?” Mehta explains. “Sometimes the best solutions come from children and teenagers and from our generation. So we should learn how to keep our ideas and really call them our own.”
Mehta encourages young inventors to start slowly, build momentum around their work and then, when the timing is right, go big. She is currently working on a graphic novel for high school students about a coding club with MIT Kids Press.
Aum Dhruv and Nick Harty
While juniors enrolled in international baccalaureate programs at Fort Myers and Harrison high schools in Florida, Nick Harty and Aum Dhruv co-invented Vison Bound, an inexpensive tool for diabetic retinopathy diagnosis. Diabetic retinopathy affects more than 90 million people worldwide and can cause blindness if left undiagnosed and untreated, which is often the case in low- and middle-income countries.
They describe their fully functioning prototype as a “solution to bridge the gap between preventable retinal diseases and technology.” Their invention, which built on previous experience with FIRST Robotics, grew out of a desire to develop medical software for a point-of-care device. To flesh out their original concept, they had to do original research using the algorithms of neural networks, cold email local ophthalmologists and a university researcher, and learn how to 3D print.
Last year they teamed up to compete and eventually won first prize in the annual Invention Convention competition held at the Henry Ford Museum, in part because their skills complemented each other. Harty had developed a background in computer science through robotics competitions, STEM tutors and MIT’s Scratch, while Dhruv honed his interest in the sciences and business through HOSA and DECA. Their interest in STEM was sparked in high school by competitions they were good at, including a math team and a science fair.
Ultimately, Dhruv describes the experience of designing an entire research project from start to finish as “life-changing.” They are both sure that they want to keep developing their own ideas into businesses.
“Inventing is what we love,” Dhruv simply explained.
Harty encourages teens interested in inventing to find a team of people they work well with and who have skills that impact the project they want to focus on.
“If you want to make something but don’t know how to use CAD or 3D printing, you need to get in touch with someone,” he said. “Try to find a classmate or teacher who can use CAD.”
Dhruv encourages young inventors to ask lots of questions and not be afraid to approach adults.
“When you’re young, people don’t really judge you for making a mistake,” explains Dhruv. “And you have to make mistakes to learn and really grow.”
Ways to help young people embrace their inner inventor
Inventing comes naturally to humans, emphasized Britt Magneson during a Zoom interview. As executive vice president of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, she oversees educational programs for youth that combine creativity with STEM concepts. Parents don’t need to buy a special kit or toy to instill the spirit of invention in their kids because it already exists, she says. Instead, she recommends asking open-ended questions and providing a large amount of open-ended material for kids to experiment with as they answer the question “What if?” These materials can be simple, everyday objects.
A longtime advocate of invention education, Juli Shively created a quarterly, free, 24-hour online event in March 2020 for young innovators to showcase their ideas. Global Innovation Excursion has provided students from more than 60 countries with a platform to connect, share and collaborate – an experience she has dubbed ‘world learning’. She describes her website, Innovation World, as a “one-stop shop” for resources related to the youth innovation space.
In a Zoom interview, she emphasized the importance of looking for student-centered programs rather than programs that teach a general process. It doesn’t really matter what the program is about, she said — it could be programming, art, music or innovation. The most important thing is that the youngster is really excited about what he is going to do because he has a hand in determining that. This teaches them that their direction matters while giving them the support they need to thrive.
Shively also recommended helping kids meet people who can be role models. As an example, she told the story of a 9-year-old GIFT host that she and her co-founder encouraged to write to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the college student’s dream lunch date. The six-page handwritten letter eventually became an invitation for the student to meet Tyson backstage at a local event that took place later that year.
“These people want to inspire young people to follow in their footsteps or do better than them and move on. It’s worth asking,” Shively explained. “It might not work, but it could, and how cool is that?”
In my experience, people who have succeeded creatively are very willing to mentor the next generation.
An important final note. Invention education is particularly suited to engaging at-risk youth, including neurodivergent children, for whom thinking differently is second nature.
Looking for an invention education program for a student in your life this summer? Check out the National Inventor Hall of Fame’s Camp Invention – there are over 1,000 programs running across the country.