When you consider the challenges facing the world, the temptation to become depressed, apathetic, and cynical is great. These problems are so complicated, how can they possibly be solved? Who among us is daring enough to try? We need leaders who are unafraid to question the status quo.
The good news is, a pathway for nurturing these leaders exists and is already growing nationwide — it’s called invention education.
Invention education is different from other educational frameworks that support innovation, like STEM, because it puts the student in the proverbial driver’s seat. Instead of being assigned a problem and instructed how to solve it, it’s up to the student to identify a problem they want to design a solution for. As they research the problem of their choice and begin developing potential solutions, the student is asked to consider the experiences of others, which focuses their empathy. As part of their curriculum, students hone their ability to communicate their ideas clearly and convincingly.
If all invention education did was teach students how to be inventive, that would be significant. But its benefits extend far beyond inventions. Learning how to identify and solve problems is an antidote to powerlessness. It embeds within young people the notion that problems are worthy of being solved and in fact can be solved. It teaches them how to approach others for help, expanding their capacity to make progress in every arena of their lives.
The teenage inventors I’ve had the privilege of interviewing are confident and highly capable. They’re leading now, not future leaders.
Here’s a snapshot into their lives as young inventors.
Samaira Mehta is a 15-year-old entrepreneur and STEM advocate from the Bay Area who designed and commercialized her first product — a board game that teaches coding concepts to children — before middle school.
The game was a solution to a problem she faced as a 6-year-old, which was that her friends didn’t think coding was fun or interesting. Could she convince them otherwise? Creating a physical game based on a digital process is unusual, Mehta points out.
“As a child working in the space of innovation, one of the biggest advantages we have is that our brains are not confined to possibilities. We can think of stuff that may or may not be possible,” she explains.
She began thinking of herself as an inventor and a CEO when she realized she was creating a solution that was going to impact people. Today, she estimates that the three board games she’s brought to market — all of which simplify complex concepts — have reached more than 25,000 students. Now her goal is to help one billion kids learn to code, because she believes it’s an essential skill. To that end, she launched “Coding As Easy As 1234” last year, an online program that uses game play to introduce AI and coding.
As of late, she’s been applying her strengths as an innovator to the field of medical research. Her creation of a platform to aid in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer — which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning — won first place in the California state science fair in 2022.
According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance, while ovarian cancer is the 11th most common cancer among women, it is the fifth-leading cause of all cancer-related death among women. Mehta was inspired to focus on this issue after the loss of her science teacher’s mother to ovarian cancer and her discovery that ovarian cancer has been overlooked among the medical community.
“When I saw a problem and that there was absolutely no good solution for it in the world today, I decided, well, what if I just create the solution?” Mehta explains. “Sometimes, the best solutions may come from children and from teens and from our generation. So, we should be taught how to save our ideas and really call them our own.”
Mehta encourages young inventors to start slow, build up momentum around their work, and then, when the timing is right, go big. She is currently working on a graphic novel for middle schoolers about a coding club with MIT Kids Press.
Aum Dhruv and Nick Harty
As juniors enrolled in International Baccalaureate programs at Fort Myers and Harrison high schools in Florida, Nick Harty and Aum Dhruv co-invented Vison Bound, a low-cost tool for diagnosing diabetic retinopathy. Diabetic retinopathy affects over 90 million people worldwide and can cause blindness when left undiagnosed and untreated, which is often the case in low-income and middle-income countries.
They describe their fully functioning prototype as a “a solution to bridge the gap between preventable retinal diseases and technology.” Their invention, which capitalized on earlier experiences with FIRST Robotics, evolved out of a desire to develop medical software for a point-of-care device. Fleshing out their initial concept required them to conduct original research using the algorithms of neural networks, cold email local ophthalmologists and a university researcher, and learn how to 3D print.
Last year, they teamed up to compete and ultimately win a first-place prize in the annual Invention Convention competition held at The Henry Ford Museum in part because their skills complimented each other. Harty had developed a background in computer science through robotics competitions, STEM educators, and MIT’s Scratch, whereas Dhruv has honed his interest in the sciences and business through HOSA and DECA. Their interest in STEM was sparked in middle school through competitions they thrived in, including math team and science fair.
Ultimately, Dhruv describes the experience of designing an entire research project by themselves, start to finish, as “life-changing.” They’re both confident they want to continue developing their own ideas into businesses.
“Inventing is what we love,” explained Dhruv simply.
Harty encourages teens who are interested in inventing to find a team of people they can work well with who have skills that are impactful towards the project they want to focus on.
“If you want to make something but you don’t know how to use CAD or 3D print, you need to reach out to someone,” he said. “Try to find a schoolmate or a teacher who knows how to use CAD.”
Dhruv encourages young inventors to ask a lot of questions and be unafraid to approach adults.
“When you’re young, people don’t really judge you for making a mistake,” Dhruv explained. “And you need to make mistakes in order to learn and truly grow.”
Ways To Help Young People Embrace Their Inner Inventor
Inventing comes naturally to humans, stressed Britt Magneson during a Zoom interview. As the executive vice-president of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, she oversees educational programs for youth that merge creativity and play with STEM concepts. Parents don’t need to purchase a special kit or toy to spark the spirit of inventiveness within their children, because it already exists, she says. Instead, she recommends asking open-ended questions and providing a large volume of open-ended materials for children to experiment with as they explore the question, “What if?” These materials can be simple, everyday items.
Juli Shively is a longtime invention education advocate who founded a quarterly, free 24-hour online event for young innovators to present their ideas in March of 2020. Since then, Global Innovation Field Trip has provided students from more than 60 countries with a platform to connect, share, and collaborate — an experience she has dubbed “world learning.” She describes her website, Innovation World, as a “one-shop stop” for resources related to the youth innovation space.
In a Zoom interview, she emphasized the importance of seeking out learner-directed programs instead of programs that teach a general process. It doesn’t matter what the program is centered around, per se, she said — it could be coding, art, music, or innovation. The important part is that the young person is actually excited about what they’re going to do because they have a hand in determining that. This teaches them that their direction is important, whilst giving them the support they need to thrive.
Shively also recommended helping children meet people who can be role models. As an example, she told the story of a 9-year-old GIFT presenter who she and her cofounder encouraged to write to Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the student’s dream lunch date. The six-page handwritten letter ultimately turned into an invitation for the student to meet Tyson backstage at a local event happening later that year.
“These people want to inspire young people to follow in their footsteps or to do better than them and to go farther. It’s worth asking,” Shively explained. “It might not work, but it might, and how cool is that?”
In my experience, people who have succeeded creatively are very willing to help mentor the next generation.
An important final note. Invention education is particularly well-suited to engage at-risk youth, including neurodivergent children, for whom thinking differently is second nature.
Looking for an invention education program for a student in your life this summer? Check out the National Inventor Hall of Fame’s Camp Invention — there are more than 1,000 programs running nationwide.