Impact Spotlights

The Lemelson-MIT Program: Cultivating and Celebrating Invention

May 15, 2015

Dr. Angela Belcher is an invention force to be reckoned with. The MIT professor of materials science and biological engineering is a leader in the field of nanotechnology, and has leveraged her extensive work on self-assembled materials to start two companies. Yet what excites Dr. Belcher the most isn’t lab work or business plans, but teaching. “If I didn’t have such passionate and brilliant students, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I do. Students think anything is possible,” says Belcher.

HONORING ROLE MODELS

Dr. Belcher is the winner of the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Prize, a $500,000 award that spotlights outstanding mid-career inventors dedicated to improving our world. The prize is just one of the Lemelson-MIT Program’s efforts to inspire young people to pursue inventive careers. The program was founded by Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1994. Supported by The Lemelson Foundation, the program is built on the Lemelsons’ vision that youth – with their natural curiosity and enthusiasm – can be invention leaders. As young inventors mature, they can use their skills and talents to create or launch ventures that tackle society’s most vexing problems while also helping to grow the economy and create jobs.  

Before there are companies, patents, or even prototypes, however, there must be inspiration. Students need to see that invention can be fun and cool, and appreciate that invention can solve real problems and improve our lives in meaningful ways; they also need to see themselves as inventors/inventive. Providing that inspiration – that sense of wonder and excitement – is an important part of how the Lemelson-MIT Program enriches the pipeline of future inventors.

PRACTICING INVENTION

Young people also need to discern the pathway that leads from high school or even middle school to becoming the next Dr. Belcher or David Sengeh. The program went beyond prizes and developed Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams in 2003 to get students started on the inventive path. These are teams of high school students, educators, and mentors that receive grants of up to $10,000 each to invent technological solutions to what the Foundation calls “problems worth solving.”

Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam participantsThe teams offer the opportunity for students to wrestle with what Lemelson-MIT Faculty Director Michael Cima describes as “open-ended problems” with no set answer.  InvenTeams work collaboratively to exchange ideas, build models, develop prototypes, and even research intellectual property. What started out as a pilot program of three teams in the New England area has grown to an 15 teams annually from across the US. The program has nurtured nearly 200 teams of high-school age inventors to date. According to Cima, InvenTeams specialize in helping students build the curiosity, empathy, and leadership needed to be a successful inventor.

The results have been remarkable. Last year, InvenTeam students in Charlotte, NC created a pedal-powered classroom desk that translates children’s active  energy into electricity. In Lancaster, CA, young people sought to curb drunk driving with a wristband that measures alcohol levels and is one-eighth the size of a traditional Breathalyzer.  An innovative group in Monmouth Junction, NJ is currently developing a proximity sensor and alert system for car doors that could increase safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers.

Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam participantThe success of Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams has been recognized by business mentors to the President of the United States. This past March, the InvenTeam from Lancaster, CA was invited to participate in the White House Science Fair, which recognizes winners from a range of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) competitions. They were joined by another InvenTeam from Hawley, PA with a generator that harnesses the movement of a boat dock created by waves to produce electricity. InvenTeams have been featured in the White House Science Fair each year since its inception in 2010.

After a decade of work with InvenTeams, the Lemelson-MIT Program realized that students and educators from low-income communities often face particular hurdles because invention, and even STEM, may not be a strong part of curricula and hands-on application of the concepts may be less familiar. The program introduced JV InvenTeams, which are comprised of students in grades 9-10 working with mentors and educators to hone their hands-on skills and enrich their STEM education through a library of topic-specific learning modules. Upon completion of the program students are better equipped to wrestle with a real-life project, go forth, and invent.  

Lemelson-MIT’s work with educators is as vital as their support for students. The program’s Executive Director Joshua Schuler calls the program’s teacher collaborators “amazing” but notes that many do not have experience with invention education. The program provides a multi-day, intensive training program for 35-40 teachers each year to better prepare high school educators for the experience of mentoring an InvenTeam. This training walks the teachers through the invention process, and exposes them to university faculty who are inventors and entrepreneurs, as well as other high school educators who have mentored InvenTeams. Most important, the trainings show teachers the enormous impact they can have inspiring students through invention.

CELEBRATING STUDENT INVENTORS

Students who graduate from the JV InvenTeams and InvenTeams initiatives often get hooked on invention and enter college ready to study engineering, design, business or a related field, and many of them view invention as a lifelong pursuit. For these students, the mentorship of professors like Dr. Belcher is critical but equally important is exposure to older students who have already designed, prototyped, and even patented or licensed inventions.

The importance of near-peer role models inspired the program to expand upon the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and create a series of prizes Lemelson-MIT National Collegiate Student Prizes that recognize promising young inventors from across the country, and provide winners with up to $15,000. The awards are given in four categories: “Cure it!” honors students whose inventions solve medical problems, and “Use it!” recognizes inventions that improve consumer devices. This year will feature two new categories of awards: “Drive it!” for making transportation better, and “Eat it!” for improving food and agriculture.

The winners of the student prize are remarkable inventors like MIT graduate student David Sengeh who used data from magnetic resonance imaging and robotic tools to create a more comfortable prosthetic interface for amputees in his native country of Sierra Leone and beyond. Winning alongside Sengeh was Clemson undergraduate Tyler Ovington and his team who developed a low-cost glucose monitor and an inkjet- printed strip system for diabetics who live in low-income countries. Ovington’s technology is being piloted at Muhimbili Hospital in Tanzania.

The highlight of the Lemelson-MIT Program’s year is EurekaFest, a two-day event in June that brings together InvenTeams, JV InvenTeams and Student Prize winners from across the nation to showcase their work. In addition, high school students from across the country take part in a real-time design challenge that involves building a wind-powered device that can hover three stories in the air at Boston’s Museum of Science. Another highpoint of EurekaFest is presentations from the new Lemelson-MIT student prize winners so that young people can meet their role models.

For two decades, the Lemelson-MIT Program has been cultivating and celebrating invention so that young people can see it as a viable career, and gain the skills they need to follow that path. As Joshua Schuler explains, “You need to give young people the opportunity to invent things because you never know who the next Jerry Lemelson will be.”