In June 2016, hundreds of students and teachers from all across the United States converged on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus in Cambridge to celebrate the power of invention.
They came to Cambridge for EurekaFest, a multi-day, student-centered showcase designed to empower the next generation of inventors through activities that inspire youth, honor role models, and encourage creativity and problem solving. The annual event marks the culmination of a year’s work by the dedicated staff at the Lemelson-MIT program, and it is unlike any other confab in the world of invention education. Each year EurekaFest brings together a community of up-and-coming student inventors, aged 14 to 24, and the educators who are encourage and support these young visionaries and problem solvers.
The Lemelson Foundation team was on hand to watch as high school InvenTeams from across the nation presented inventions that they have been developing over the past year. We listened as a diverse cohort of award-winning high school teachers were trained and shared notes on best practices in invention education. And we marveled at the breakthrough ideas of award-winning collegiate teams and individuals who earned the coveted Lemelson-MIT Student Prize.
Over three days at MIT, we spoke with dozens of EurekaFest participants and were struck by their perspectives, insights, and optimism for the future. This two-part series details some of what we heard, shedding light on the unique connections between students and teachers.
- Part One: Conner Denning, Student: “1% innovation. 99% hard work”
- Part Two: Kyle Kenan, Teacher: “The power of science and service”
Part One: Conner Denning, Student: “1% innovation. 99% hard work”
Conner Denning attends West Salem High School in Salem, OR. The soon-to-be senior and 12 fellow students attended EurekaFest 2016 with their veteran science teacher Michael Lampert. We caught up with Conner (and his mom and brother) after his team presented their invention to a lecture hall full of fellow students.
What is the invention your team brought to EurekaFest this year?
We created something called a thermal electric biomass generator. Basically you can attach it to a fire and it can create extra energy for people who don’t have it. It can be used to charge mobile phones, or to power batteries and lights…things that kids and families in poor countries often need help with.
Tell us about how you initially got interested in invention.
Invention is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. So I feel really lucky to get to work with Mr. Lampert. He is our teacher for research science, and he kind of does everything related to competitive science in our school. He’s the bomb. This EurekaFest project was really the first time I got to do something that was so hands-on. I like to think a lot and come up with ideas, but it’s hard to take an idea and put it into something physical, especially if you don’t have the money or the resources.
How did your team come up with the idea for a thermal electric biomass generator? That sounds very technical…and complicated.
Last year I told Mr. Lampert I wanted to build a new kind of water bottle – one that purifies the water when you shake it. My idea was that it would charge some sort of generator, which would flash the water with UV-C light and then it would be clean. Well, as it turns out, there were some issues with that concept. For starters, it is really hard to generate power by shaking alone. It’s not as simple as you think. So we had to give up on that idea.
Most famous inventors have to learn a thing or two about failure along the way. So what did you do next?
We had already assembled a group of kids who were interested in joining an InvenTeam, but after the first idea fell through we were lost and not really sure what to do. Fortunately, over the summer a bunch of us had some cool experiences traveling to different places. One of the team members got to go to TOMODACHI in Japan where they talked about sustainable energy. Another went home to China and got to see the countryside there, including a lot of rural poverty. And I went on a trip to Nicaragua. Then we all met back up at school we said, “What about energy? That seems to be a big issue in many parts of the world.” So we pushed on it and tried to think about what would be a good way to generate energy in a cheaper way. That’s when we came up with thermal electric generation.
Describe the experience of working on an InvenTeam. What did you like about it?
Inventing is one percent innovation and 99 percent hard work. And it’s hard to do the 99 percent part when you don’t have the resources, and when you don’t have the people. I have to say it is really meaningful that MIT, one of the best schools in the country, and Lemelson, an amazing foundation, could give us the opportunity to do something physical. It’s really, really inspired me to want to go on and build other things.
You are going to be a senior in the fall. What do you plan to do next?
I’ve always wanted to go to a research college and have my own project. Ultimately I want to be some sort of engineer or inventor. I really like the idea of having a patent. So I thought it was cool to see the college student prize-winners who have these big ideas; my favorite one was Kinnos, the one with the bleach additive. They had a very concrete, good idea and then they went to a school where they had the opportunity and the technology to manifest it into what it is. Seeing that is my dream. I have all these things I want to do and try, so the thought of surrounding yourself with professors and other people who can help you do that would be amazing.
If you were going to give advice to organizations that support young inventors, what would it be? How could Lemelson or other foundations best encourage students like you?
My advice wouldn't be just for the foundation. It’s more about educating kids in general. I hate it when I see people who are smart and have all these ideas, but they don’t have the right people around them to help manifest their ideas. It would be so cool to have classes that taught us what’s involved in being an inventor. Like if someone said “Alright all you InvenTeams, before you start your projects, why don’t you fly out for a couple days (to MIT) and we will show you how to be inventors – no matter what the specific invention is that you’re working on or dreaming about.”
It would be sort of like a boot camp for inventors. Because even though we have all of these supportive people around us, it can be hard to take the first step. So if they were like: “Here we go. Let’s help you figure out how to weld, or how to do fabrication. Let’s figure out how to do this because that’s what you need to know to invent.” Some schools in our state still have metal shop, but it’s more of a trade. It’s not seen as a skill for inventors. But most of them got rid of it for programming and robotics and music. We need all those things, including shop!
Part Two: Kyle Kenan, Teacher: “The power of science and service”
Kyle Kenan is an engineering teacher at KIPP Sunnyside School in Houston, Texas, and was attending his first EurekaFest as an InvenTeam faculty advisor. Advisors wear many hats: They apply for the grant and recruit the students who will comprise the team, and they monitor funds and support students throughout the process. Educators are advised to work with students in the spirit of self-directed learning, like a coach on a sports team or director of a musical ensemble.
The Sunnyside H.S. team invented a semi-autonomous robot and an asphalt patch compound to repair cracks and potholes in roadways. The system minimizes material waste and road repair worker hazard while providing longer-lasting fills.
How long have you been involved in the InvenTeam program? And how has it changed the way you teach?
The JV InvenTeam curriculum was my first introduction to project-based learning, where you are more of a facilitator than an instructor. It was cool because it was like self-discovery. So the students were posed with some sort of problem and then they had to formulate a process to solve it. They had to research and examine other solutions to the problem and then figure out their own way of doing it. The thing that was so refreshing with the JV InvenTeam curriculum was that it examined relevant, new, fun subjects that students were interested in – and it did so through the dual lenses of science and service.
What do you mean by “science and service” exactly?
Let’s start with science. In Texas we have a lot of students who are athletes, and they don't always initially get how science and athletics connect. But when I show them a video of Hussein Bolt, the fastest man on Earth, all of a sudden science is relatable to them; it’s something in their field of interest. Pretty soon they start to recognize that the type of shoe an athlete wears has an impact on how fast he can go. Now all of a sudden this is applicable to them because it can enhance their performance on the field. Learning the science behind it sucks them in.
And what’s the “service” part?
The InvenTeam we brought to EurekaFest this year is mostly female, and I am very proud of that because there just aren’t enough women in this field. And something that I have come to realize with this group of students is that interest grows when we connect them to science in a way that focuses on helping people. I’ve talked with my students about the possibility that engineers save more lives than any other profession in the word, and they love that. Think about all the things engineers have made possible and all the lives those inventions help. Clean water? Millions. A pacemaker? Millions! Or even if calculus is not the most exciting thing to you, the idea that if you may have someone in your family suffering and you can help them through the use of science and math, it motivates you even more.
How is teaching students to think like inventors different than teaching them in other more traditional ways?
Too often when people try to solve problems for others, they don't really have enough perspective to be useful. They may figure out what they think the best solution is, but they do it from their perspective rather than yours. The invention programs in our school work because we’re able to get kids in our communities to examine problems that they face first hand, in real life, every day. Then, when they are the people that create the solution, it’s a whole different type of solution than an outsider who isn’t from that community may have come up with.
We can’t afford to spend a million dollars each time we need to solve a problem that we have in our community. That’s what’s so exciting about invention - especially for people with the backgrounds that my students typically have. If we can solve a problem ourselves, within our available resources, that to me is worth so much more than if someone solved it for us. That’s what is so beautiful about invention. It gives you freedo