Young Inventors' Program"
Much has been written about the present condition of American education. It is difficult to pick up a newspaper or magazine that doesn't have an article by someone concerned with the quality of public schools. Parents are concerned that their children are not keeping up with students in other countries, and businesses are afraid of "losing the competitive edge." Studies show that today's youth may lack the basic skills needed to function effectively in the workforce.
In too many instances, corporations must spend capital on upgrading the education of their new recruits so they can handle the increased sophistication of their jobs. In an article published in Educational Leadership (1992), John O'Neil reported that "Unless U.S. students are better equipped to enter a changing workplace, the financial future for graduates - and likely the economy as a whole - is likely to remain bleak even after the present recession breaks." A decade has passed since the O'Neil article, and businesses still are concerned with the lack of skills of the entering workforce. Still worse, the National Science Board reports in its latest Science Indicators (2000) that American student performance in international math and science competitions remains dismal.
Teaching students to be creative thinkers and problem solvers will address many of the problems of public education and will help prepare students for an uncertain future. Instead of the traditional rote memorization of facts from lectures and textbooks, students must be encouraged to think through problems, analyze, ask questions, and support decisions. In schools as well as in the workplace, individuals are confronted daily with problems demanding solutions. How they solve those problems is often determined by how well they have developed critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.
Learning the process of inventing develops students' problem-solving abilities and creativity in the broadest sense. Inventing provides a unique opportunity for learners of all ages to synthesize and apply knowledge and skills in an interdisciplinary, real-life manner. The process places a strong emphasis on defining an actual problem, formulating an original solution, developing a product, and sharing the results or products with appropriate audiences. A unit on invention, included herein, challenges students to become actively engaged in the learning process. They quickly discover that it's also fun.
The invention process provides an opportunity for all students to participate and be successful. All children can identify problems in their homes or neighborhoods. Almost every day they will face at least one problem. An unmade bed, a dog that eats the cat's food, a mother with a broken leg that must be elevated when she sits, a grandfather who cannot grasp a bar of soap because of severe arthritis - all are examples of real-life problems identified and solved by students participating in this program. When students identify a problem to be solved, they become actively engaged in the learning process. Once the problem has been identified, teacher and parent have but to stand aside and watch them go.
A unit on inventive thinking, which includes the production of an original invention, is limited only by the imagination of the teachers and students. You might ask, "with everything else I have to teach, why take the time for inventing?"
Research has shown that inventing will:
These are all solid reasons for studying inventors, inventions, and the inventive process. For teachers who understand learners and learning, there are three primary reasons for incorporating these ideas into classrooms and the curriculum. These ideas are relevant, they allow for choice, and they connect.
Not only does the study of invention connect disciplines, it connects school to life. It's "science with a purpose," as one student aptly put it. An invention is the concrete application of the scientific process. Whether studying inventions from the past or creating their own, students can make connections. The study of invention is the study of humanity's past and its impact on the natural world in recorded history and beyond. It touches all aspects of life. Our economic and sociological history can be examined by the impact of inventions from the earliest days of America's agricultural-based economy and through the industrial and information revolutions.
Have the VCR, automobile, telephone, television and Internet changed the way we live and do business? What is the relationship of invention to geography and the environment? Why were certain things invented in certain places and in certain times? Is "necessity the mother of invention"? What are the ethical issues connected with recent medical and genetic inventions? Has our definition of artist changed with the technical advances made in the visual and performing arts?
Global civilization can be studied through invention. Science fiction stories even predict the impact of humanity's inventiveness on the future. Invention can be a tremendous organizing theme for a unit, a course, or a year-long, school-wide program. The study of invention will help our students connect the past to the present and to the future.
If we want to keep smiling, be effective in today's classroom, and prepare our youth to cope with the incredible challenges that have arrived with the 21st century, our lessons must be relevant. What can be more relevant than studying inventions? Everything students see and use was invented by someone - why not by them?
Who is an inventor, anyway? Is an inventor just "a frazzled old man in a white coat with glasses and big hair?" Inventors are simply people - male or female, young or old - any race or creed - everyday people who solve problems. When someone brings a new solution to a problem, he or she is an inventor. Some solutions are simple. Some are complex. But all inventors have common traits:
In 1899, (then) U.S. Patent Office Commissioner Charles Duell allegedly reported to President McKinley and the Congress that, "I recommend closing the Patent Office, since everything that can be invented has been invented."
Archivists disavow this quote, pointing to many of Duell's verified statements to the contrary. Inventors were operating in high gear at the time, and the Patent Office in 1899 could hardly keep abreast of American innovation. This country was, after all, in the very midst of the industrial revolution. Nonetheless, this misquote made the rounds for decades, appearing in advertisements and repeated by lecturers. Too bad for poor Mr. Duell but, still, his non-statement does serve a very useful purpose. It keeps reminding us that, just when we thought we've seen everything, more amazing inventions are rolled out. Inventors are constantly inventing.
This has been particularly true of the more recent information revolution. We can only dream of the miracles that will flow from the fertile minds of inventors in the days to come. But, educators and curriculum developers can do more than dream when it comes to preparing our students to be ready to become proactive problem solvers; perhaps even to prepare them for roles as tomorrow's inventors.
Through biographies and journals, students can learn about the process of inventing, as well as about individual inventors. They can learn that even though Thomas Edison was reportedly learning disabled - he was still our most prolific inventor. For students who are having difficulties in school, this can be enlightening; it can be an opportunity to identify with determined and successful people.
Another relevant point about the study of inventions or teachers, parents and administrators is that newly published national goals and state academic standards all speak to making connections and to studying unifying themes. In mathematics, science, social studies and language arts, numerous goals and proficiency standards can be easily and clearly addressed through the study of invention, inventors, and inventing.
What better way to address the work done by Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences than to allow students to follow their strengths and interests through inventing? This is a chance for each student to be the expert, to become empowered, and to exhibit his or her individuality. Whether following a special interest in a research project, conducting a traditional science project, or trying their hands at inventing, the element of choice can be highly motivating for students.
All types of learners can find success when multiple product possibilities are acceptable. Whether the strengths are written, verbal, musical, or body/kinesthetic, inter- or intrapersonal, logical/mathematical, or visual/spatial - all have a place in the invention theme.
In the era of "too much to teach and not enough time," the perfect solution is to use an interdisciplinary approach.
See Program Overview