Can Anyone Be an Inventor? Why MIT’s Invention Education Officer Says Yes
When you hear the word “invention,” what comes to mind? The lightbulb? Telephone? Maybe the airplane?
These were groundbreaking inventions that fundamentally changed the way we live and communicate and travel—so much so that 100 years later, their creators are still household names: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, the Wright brothers.
But today, there are plenty of young inventors whose names you haven't heard of—not yet, anyway. These are middle and high school students who have developed solutions to major economic and social challenges, ranging from health care and transportation to agriculture and the environment.
This week’s guest on the EdSurge On Air podcast is someone who works with these students every day, helping each of them identify a problem and refine a solution—an invention. Leigh Estabrooks has seen students in New York City invent a tool that will prevent fires from igniting on the city’s subway tracks and students in North Carolina create a system that helps farmers identify disabilities in their livestock.
Estabrooks is the invention education officer at the Lemelson-MIT program, which encourages young people to create and invent through two grant initiatives. But she says what’s even better than seeing all the inventions that come through each year is realizing that it’s not just the most gifted students who are getting patents for their work. All students—no matter their GPAs or ZIP codes or learning challenges—can be inventors. She knows, because she’s seen it.
Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.
EdSurge: So first of all, what exactly is an invention education officer? What do you do?
Leigh Estabrooks: What do I do? I have a lot of fun. My work consists of designing programs for young inventors across the country. And through the Lemelson-MIT Program, I run grants initiatives as well as training for teachers, and really just introducing people to what it means to be creative and inventive.
How did you get into this work?
I have a unique background. I started off in corporate research and development, then took a few years off to raise children. When my children went to school, I went to school also. I became a high school teacher.
And there was an opportunity, about 13 years ago, to go to work for the Lemelson-MIT Program to run the InvenTeams grants initiative, and my background fit really well for that.
I've been there since the program was two years old. And I work with young inventors—we're helping to foster young inventors.
How many middle school and high school students actually say that they're inventors? Not many. And we're trying to help them to understand that it isn't an elite status, and that all kids, all students, can invent.
What's something that a student could create that they might not consider an “invention,” but you would?
First of all, we work with teams of high school inventors, not individual inventors, because it is a very lofty goal for one person in high school to invent something that's significant for humankind. We pool all their knowledge together, so that they can actually create a useful, unique contrivance within one school year.
And these students will address a real-world problem. It's very open-ended.
So we just had our capstone event last week at MIT. It's called EurekaFest. And we brought all the high school teams that we've been working with together, and they presented and showcased their inventions to the MIT community.
What are some of those inventions, you might ask? The one that comes to mind right now, the one that's just rather intrigued me over this past week, in fact, has been a group of students from California who've worked on improving the quality of sleep of high school students.
You know that the life of a high school student is very hectic, filled with AP courses, filled with extracurricular activities, filled with college applications. They, on average, get about six hours of sleep, which isn't enough sleep for anyone. So they've wanted to look into the problem of sleep deprivation in high school students. And yet what they came to find out through their research and their invention is that many people besides just high school students can benefit from an improved night's sleep. And it's through this group of students that I learned a lot about sleep. And so I have to admit that over the past few mornings I've woken up thinking, Gosh, did I get those delta waves in last night? Did I get a quality night's sleep?
And these kids are just doing amazing things. They are integrating computational thinking and computer science in with microelectronics and the internet of things. And they're creating this system, not just one contrivance, but a system to improve the quality of sleep that they're actually seeking a patent, intellectual property protection for. And I would think that these students will take this project into college with them.
The system may, through a headband, monitor the quality of sleep. Through a wrist band, an integrated wrist band, it will cool the body down to improve the quality of sleep. And also through a phone app, help the student to realize during the day how alert they are. And eventually they would like to tie all of these devices in together.
I want to back up. So when high schoolers get to you, have they already identified a problem? What's their starting point?
Their starting point is a point of passion. Something that they as a team believe in, that they come together and agree upon. We found that in working with high school students, this really needs to be their problem that they own, not a problem that's been assigned to them.
It's terribly difficult work, on top of everything else that a high school student is doing. An InvenTeam project can take up to 250 hours during the school year. It's afterschool work. It's Saturday work. It's Sunday work sometimes. It's holiday work. So they really have to be fully vested in what the problem is, and therefore they'll work hard on the solution to improve the lives of others.
Over the 13 years that you've been in your role, can you name one or two inventions that have blown you away?
To be clear, it's the students that blow me away. The inventions are extraordinary, but it's the students that come up with these inventions that really blow me away.
And I found over my years of working with the Lemelson-MIT Program that all students, all kids can invent.
I've seen a team of special-needs students from North Carolina that had an extraordinary invention three years ago. These kids worked diligently out of a lab at North Carolina State University, where they came together from all over North Carolina. One student traveled as far as Charlotte to Raleigh every weekend to work with this group of students. And these were kids who didn't have a lot of opportunities in the regular school day to pursue STEM, because they were doing other things to work with their disability. And they had the most astounding invention to help detect lameness in cows.
And so I learned from all the kids. I had no idea why they were studying lameness in cows, but lameness actually is a way that a farmer will detect whether or not the cow is healthy.
And I just can't tell you what it meant to, not just the kids, but to the kids' families, to see their sons and their daughters presenting their very clever solution at MIT and being awarded the most technical award that year for what they diligently worked on.
They continue to work with farmers so that they will use it. And they've been invited and have visited the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria. These kids are great.
When you're working with these students, what sort of qualities and skills do you most often see come out during these projects? Which are most useful?
They have to be persistent. Learn from failure. Resourcefulness. And they really do have to be very engaged with the problem itself. They have to have a good working knowledge of the problem and to continue to develop that knowledge over the time that they're working to reduce it to practice.
Where do you see young people funneling their energy these days? Are there common problems that they have or that they want to be able to solve?
That's very difficult to answer, because their problems come primarily from their communities, and every community has a different set of problems and issues.
But I do see students turning more and more to technology, so that their inventions are more electronic, if you will. Whereas perhaps 15 years ago, the inventions tended to be more mechanical. Today there is a component of computer science in just about all of our projects.
And did most of these students come to you with that baseline computer science knowledge?
Not at all. They come to us, again, with a great problem to solve. And there's a lot of just-in-time and just-enough learning. And that's where I think many of the tools that we have today [come in]. Thank goodness for YouTube. Thank goodness for Wikipedia. Thank goodness for Google. You know, the kids are quite adept at finding their own answers.
And yes, they did have a teacher. But the teacher wasn't teaching them how to program. The teacher was facilitating the process.
I feel like I have to ask if you have a favorite invention of all time.
Well, my favorite invention—the one I keep going back to—is Nancy Johnson's 1843 invention of the ice cream maker. I think it's extraordinary. In 1840, there were only 20 female inventors at that time. And that just astounds me.
Who were those 20 women? We can look them up and see. But in thinking about inventors today, only 10 percent of our inventors on U.S. patents are women. Ninety percent are men. And that's an area where my program really wants to make a difference. Our InvenTeams have about 35 percent female participation, and we work every year to get that number higher and higher and higher.