Impact Spotlights

The Next Generation of Inventors: GMin Challenges Young People to Solve Problems

August 20, 2015

Many people will say that young people are the hope for our future. But they seem to think those young people will start tackling the world’s problems when they’re grown. Very few actually go to teenagers and ask them to solve community challenges—right now—with whatever materials they can find. 

That’s what Global Minimum does. The results are impressive, to say the least.

Mohamed Harding has created many solutions in his bedroom lab. When he couldn’t study at night because of power cuts, he invented a “reading glass”, a simple technology that gave him an alternative to kerosene lamps. He opened his home to other youth in the neighborhood who also became problem solvers within their community. Mohamed received a scholarship to study at the African Leadership Academy and has organized various learning workshops for other youth including at the Maker Faire Africa. After he left for South Africa, one of the students who was part of his lab converted his own home into a maker space and opened its doors to other students who were interested in local problem solution. 

Mohamed got his start by participating in Global Minimum’s Innovation Lab and in the Innovate Challenge in Sierra Leone. Global Minimum—GMin—is out to create the next generation of inventors. 

“We try to inspire kids to start asking themselves: What are the local community challenges that you see? How would you solve it? And then we start giving them the mentorship, tools, and safe space that they need to create a solution,” explains Elli Suzuki, Chief Operating Officer of GMin. “Our youth are interested in solving a wide range of community challenges that they experience in their daily lives and they are coming up with diverse, yet tangible solutions that positively affect their communities.”

Mohamed Harding, a participant of Gmin's Innovation Lab, has created many solutions in his bedroom lab.To inspire kids and turn them into change-makers, the global nonprofit runs programs in Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa. It hosts annual Innovate Challenges (InChallenges), national invention challenges where youth teams submit proposals, are awarded seed money, and create solutions for community problems over the course of three to five months. 

It creates Innovation Labs (InLabs), safe and creative spaces in secondary schools for students to learn “making” skills—everything from arts and crafts, to filmmaking and computer science. 

Sometimes these problems are urgent and life-threatening. From 2014 to early 2015, GMin created a temporary program in response to the Ebola outbreak in Sierra Leone, called Hack at Home. Because of quarantine, approximately two million students were not in school for nine months. Using WhatsApp and Facebook, teens at home connected with one another and with the program to solve specific problems suggested by GMin: Create a local personal protective suit using what you can find in your own home. Design an educational awareness poster. Figure out how to deliver food to those quarantined.

Like all GMin’s programs, Hack at Home encouraged youth to solve real problems—to not only become inventors, but to focus on problems worth solving.

In Kenya, South Africa, and Sierra Leone, youth constitute about 60% of the population. Approximately the same percentage of the unemployed is below the age of 25. GMin wants the young people of these developing countries to feel that there are economic opportunities available to them. 

“The next generation will be taxed with one of the most complex systemic challenges. We think it’s important to train kids with relevant skills and provide them with the opportunities to apply those skills to relevant issues in their countries,” Suzuki explains. 

GMin is the vision of David Sengeh and his former high school colleagues. David grew up in Sierra Leone. A PhD student at the MIT Media Lab and the winner of the 2014 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, Sengeh is working on creating more comfortable prosthetic sockets. In 2012, he returned to his high school in Sierra Leone and hosted the first Innovation Challenge. He wants to inspire an environment where young people have the opportunities that he has at MIT—an environment where they are encouraged to think critically, solve problems, and make solutions with their own hands.  

“It really is about seeing that transformation that comes when a young person suddenly considers themselves a problem solver,” Sengeh says. “When the light sparks and they think ‘I can do this. This is an issue that exists, and I can approach it and take that step.’” 

Sengeh is talking about the first step in what The Lemelson Foundation considers The Invention Pathway, inspiring the next generation of inventors. The Invention Pathway is a core concept behind The Lemelson Foundation’s approach—a strategy based on the belief that the products needed to solve the world’s biggest problems require careful, measured solutions. The Foundation focuses their work on the first three steps of The Invention Pathway: inspiration, education, and incubation. First, young people need to be inspired to learn and believe they can make a difference in the world. Next they need the knowledge to put their ideas into action—they need to become critical thinkers with access to education in key subjects such as science, technology, engineering, and math. And lastly, they need support to incubate and grow inventive ideas into real, viable businesses. 

“We feel like we’re part of a larger ecosystem,” Suzuki says. “In Kenya, The Lemelson Foundation has supported Sanergy. They have supported Gearbox. We are hoping that we can elevate our student talent to become the future Gearbox, the next Sanergy. It's incredible that The Lemelson Foundation is creating that ecosystem around us, and around the young people, so that they have a pipeline of opportunities to become an inventor.”

GMin focuses on reaching students early to build their confidence and skills, and to prepare them for moving into the inspiration-education-incubation pathway. All of GMin’s programs match students with local and global mentors who ask critical questions, and provide feedback and guidance through their inventing process. It’s a dedicated and deeply engaged process. GMin—and the mentors they work with—believe that all youth are creative innovators with the potential to be change-makers. They intentionally work in resource-limited settings, trying to reach students who wouldn’t have these opportunities otherwise. 

The organization makes sure that their programs are inclusive of all young people. Their next partnership in Kenya is with an all-girls school. They try to reach rural areas in all three countries. Participating, as they say, is open to anyone who has the interest and determination to change their communities.

That determination is harnessed and put to work right away. GMin doesn’t ask students to work on abstract problems. They give them real challenges and ask them to come up with practical solutions—from day one.

When GMin piloted InLabs in Sierra Leone, the labs didn’t have electricity. They asked the students to figure out a way to bring electricity to the Innovation Lab. Later, students created portable backpacks with solar lights and bicycles that generate electricity. In Kenya, many students tackle the issue of renewable energy. In South Africa, students choose to focus on issues of security, education, and unemployment.  

Young inventors take those challenges and run with them. GMin students have instituted composting centers to decrease the greenhouse gas emissions from traditional landfills, built wells to improve lack of safe access to drinking water, and created luminescent signage for informal settlements to help emergency personnel find the people they’re trying to reach. 

“We want young people to understand that they play a significant role in their community,” Suzuki says. “We’re in it for the long term.”