Impact Spotlights

Learning How to Learn: A Conversation with David Sengeh

April 24, 2015
David Sengeh. Lemelson-MIT Student Prize winner and head of GMin

The Lemelson-MIT Program celebrates outstanding inventors and inspires young people to pursue inventive careers. David Sengeh, a Ph.D. candidate at the MIT Media Lab, is an embodiment of that mission.

Sengeh was one of the winners of the 2014 Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition for his groundbreaking work on improved sockets for prosthetic legs. Sengeh witnessed the need for his invention first-hand by talking to amputees in his home country Sierra Leone and those in the United States. He noticed that many seldom used their legs and if they did, they were uncomfortable. The reason was simple: The prosthetics hurt.

THE LEMELSON FOUNDATION: What about prosthetics and this specific problem motivated you to focus your energy to find a solution?

DAVID SENGEH: Many organizations, healthcare providers, and others provide prosthetics for amputees in places like Sierra Leone.  But I know people in Sierra Leone who wouldn't use their prosthetics. It didn't matter that they got them for free, what they looked like, or what they were made of. They didn’t use them because they were uncomfortable.   

I also met with my professor at MIT who is a double amputee.  In our first conversation, it became very clear that he was also uncomfortable with his prosthetic. I saw that patients who were in the US, much like in Sierra Leone, had the same problem – they could not get a comfortable prosthetic socket and I thought, “There must be a way to fix this.” We needed to create the technology by better understanding the fundamental science behind how to connect the body to machines.

I wanted to see how we can use data and different tools — like MRI, digital imaging, modeling, soft tissue modeling, and 3D printing — to allow patients around the world to get comfortable prosthetic devices by creating better tools, better models, or new manufacturing processes. To solve this complex human problem, we needed expertise in different areas of research and this is exciting to me.

LEMELSON: In addition to your work with prosthetic devices, you co-founded are Board President of Global Minimum—or GMin—an organization that helps kids to see themselves as problem solvers and inventors. How did your educational experience help you become an inventor and motivate you to give back in this way? 

SENGEH: The biggest value I've gotten from my education was that I learned how to learn. It comes down to being creative enough to use the set of experiences that you have and apply those to solving a problem. There is a big difference between quality invention-oriented curriculum—having a project that we are making, tinkering with, and prototyping all the time, and a situation where students sit like robots in the classroom, memorize, regurgitate, earn a degree, and find a job. That type of learning is not going to change societies. My work uses the experiences in lab to learn how to learn, and brings that knowledge to young people in Sierra Leone and other African countries.

The work I do through GMin is about seeing the transformation that comes when a young person suddenly becomes a problem solver. When the light turns on and they think, "I can do this. This is an issue that I see and I can try to solve it." I love to enable other people to achieve the potential that they or their society thought was not possible.

LEMELSON: Let’s talk about your experience with The Lemelson Foundation and winning the Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prize Competition.  Why has this been important?

SENGEH: The impact of winning the student prize competition has been huge. From the exhibition, where I met the people from The Lemelson Foundation and got funded to do the work in Sierra Leone, to the support that I get from the Foundation in introducing our work to other players in youth learning, to the opportunities that the program itself offers me to amplify my work and mentor kids. It's such a blessing and I feel grateful to be part of it.

The work The Lemelson Foundation does is important because it inspires the way kids learn, giving them the opportunities to create and have ideas for solving problems. The Foundation also creates a support network that allows the learner to thrive at every step along the inventor’s pathway, and to go to the next level. If you think about the student prize competition, for example, it celebrates not just one invention, not just one thing the student was good at, but the way that invention has impact on and value in society. 

LEMELSON: Talk more about the inventor’s pathway, what other support have you or other inventors received from The Lemelson Foundation?David Sengeh with students at iHub

SENGEH: The Lemelson Foundation emphasizes incubation and linking people to networks—giving them mentors and access to resources to help them out. It's important because at the end of the day, they help to separate thinkers from doers. The doers are those who take a project, incubate it, test it, learn from it, and record that learning. It is essential to have a database of things that people have done.  We need to record questions that people have asked and answered, or failed to answer. This is essential for us as well as for the youth who are learning and picking up projects where others have left off.

LEMELSON: What do you see as the role of invention?

SENGEH: Inventions should create value for society. There are lots of smart people in the world who have access to tools and resources and can choose to work on anything, but they often choose to solve problems of convenience.

I want to use technologies that we have, or need to create, to address very specific problems that affect society. As a world, we still have lots of challenges—energy access, access to data, pollution. There are a lot of inequities in the world and there are people who cannot meet their basic needs. The inventions I want to think about and work on aim to solve those problems for people. That's what drives what I do.

LEMELSON: What advice would you give someone who wants to be an inventor?

SENGEH: I'm not sure there is advice for everyone who wants to be an inventor. What was most valuable to me was working collaboratively with others and receiving feedback. I love feedback. I hate when I share my ideas and people say, "Oh it's good!" and don't give me anything else; that ends the conversation. I want you to tell me why it's good, why it sucks, and how it can get better.  So my advice is to ask for feedback—and keep asking—from people who have a variety of backgrounds and experiences.