James Wittel, a New Jersey teen, was vacuuming the floor of his home when he ran the mouth of the machine over his foot by accident. Most high school students would simply think nothing of it and carry on until their chores were done. Wittel, however, saw the brushes on the end of the nozzle – and an opportunity to change lives in Africa.
He went back to his team of classmates at Bridgewater high, and told them he had a solution to what they were looking for: a means to help the poorest of the poor in Africa by mechanising the production of sorghum – all because of the inventors competition he was taking part in.
In the West, sorghum is largely used for animal feed, but it’s still the staple diet in large swathes of deprived, rural Africa. But producing it can be tricky: dividing the seeds from the inedible waste is a finickety process that requires endless mashing with a large pestle and mortar, then tossing everything into the air to separate the lighter seeds.
The brush system was the last piece of the puzzle for the high school team, Teen Technology, which had set out to speed up the process in a cost effective way, by using a bicycle powered grinding system. Just by pedaling, the chain spins a thresher into which you insert the raw sorghum – and the brushes acts as a sieve, with the seeds falling into a bucket below. The group has since gone on to trial the device with several humanitarian groups in sub-Saharan Africa.
The breakthrough might never have come about were it not for the InvenTeams initiative, run by the Lemelson-MIT Program, a foundation established in 1994 by inventor Jerome H. Lemelson, who died with 605 patents to his name. The Lemelson-MIT program awards teams of teen inventors and teachers a $10,000 grant to develop their solutions to real world problems.
“The reason the program was started was to identify inventors for people to look up to,” executive director of the program Joshua Schuler tells Humans Invent. “More recently in the early 2000s, we thought that it’s all well and good to give these grants out to adults, but it’s even better to get young people themselves roll up their sleeves.”
Around 15-20 teams compete nationwide, and recently the InvenTeams initiative has expanded to include Chinese high school teams: two competed in last year’s program.
Other ideas generated from the program include a device to detect the ripeness of melons based on the sound they make when tapped, and the Torch Cord, an ingenious power cable coated in touch sensitive glow wire: squeeze it, and the whole cord lights up, helping you remove it from the inevitable tangle behind the computer or TV. “It solves a simple problem, it makes you slap yourself in the head, and companies are interested in it,” says Schuler.
Several other teams have also been awarded patents for their work, including ones for the “curb conqueror”, a system that attaches an effective wheelchair ramp onto the chair itself, and Road Iron, a system to detect cracks in the road surface likely to yawn into potholes, and fill them before they have a chance.
The designs are by equal measures genius and resourceful, and though they address very different problems, watching the presentation, it’s clear that the teams have learned as much about teamwork as they have about the intricacies of grain harvesting or sound decay.
The Lemelson-MIT program isn’t alone in attempting to wean kids off various glowing screens, and encouraging them to start inventing. In the US, the organisation that runs the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Virginia, Invent Now, runs similar competitions for students, and has given away more than a million dollars in prize funds since 1990.
Closer to home, the Central St Martins art school in London is looking to a new generation of creatives to become the inventors of tomorrow. The school has teamed up with San Francisco design agency Method to create the Method Design Lab, an incubator to help students realise their ideas as finished, commercialised products.
With the current en vogue aesthete of minimalism and efficiency, designers have never been better placed to become inventors, Yann Mathias, a creative director at the college and a member of the lab’s executive team, tells Humans Invent.
“In the last five years I would say that designers are moving away from their own disciplines,” he says. “Product designers are experimenting in brand experience and digital as well. By mixing disciplines they are inventing things, and those things are coming back to us…it’s very exciting.”
Method Design Lab is about encouraging students with ideas to help make them a reality. The lab, established earlier this year, is currently working on fifteen ideas it thinks are viable, and the first is a design-driven solution to child safety. Called the Inky Pen, this neon toy dispenses coloured sun tan lotion so as to encourage kids to treat it as a game and apply it properly: think of it as a giant, UV-blocking Crayola and you’re not far off.
Mathias says the lab is in talks with several big players to manufacture the pen. “Most never thought about creating an experience around the application of sun cream. Suddenly if you create an experience, they are having fun.”
Kids, of course, say the strangest things, but it’s unconventional thoughts that can change the world. Invent Now knows this, and has been trying to encourage an even younger generation to pull up the garage door, pop their thinking caps on and get to work on the drawing board.
The organisation, together with the US Patent and Trademark Office and Ad Council, runs a website aimed at much younger children, InventNow.org. It provides a series of problems aimed at getting children thinking laterally (If you were president, how would you cut down carbon emissions? How would you make a remote control that worked with everything?), then encourages them to submit their ideas to a gallery, which features everything from bikes with suction cup wheels to a robot that can play hide and seek.
It’s wrapped up in slick graphics and accessible cartoon avatars to capture the imagination of easily bored kids, but it’s more than a mere Flash animation: the site even explains the basic concepts of patents and encourages would-be-inventors to apply for one with an adult.
It’s always nice to have an award under your extra-curricular belt, but these initiatives are now more important than ever: studies have shown we might just be heading towards a creativity crisis.
The Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT), named after psychologist Ellis Paul Torrance, has long been used as an indicator of imagination: the problems set have no right answer, with the emphasis instead on coming up with as many answers as possible.
For decades, this average CQ score rose along with its more empirical counterpart, IQ (intelligent quotient). But as the 1990s arrived, something strange happened: it started to fall. According to a study by Dr Kyung Hee Kim of the education department at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, it’s been dropping ever since, and with each new intake of kinder-gardeners (reception students), it’s getting worse.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the opportunities to do things with your hands,” says Schuler. “The shop class of old, you’re seeing those go by the wayside. I don’t think kids are less creative, they just need to be given more opportunities to be creative…get kids excited about the things they learn in the school day so they can apply them in these more creative avenues.”
Invent Now has tried through its Camp Invent summer camps, thousands of enrichment schools run every summer across every American state bar Hawaii. Different classes challenge elementary school children to come up with solutions to survival on another planet, come up with green energy alternatives and even get to grips with how jetpacks work.
The camps are a success: they’ve been running for more than twenty years. But more recently, Invent Now has made a much more immediate impact: last year, it opened its own public school the National Inventors Hall of Fame School, in Akron, Ohio. Marrying the state’s curriculum with creative thinking, the teachers challenged students to solve issues around the school, such as noise in the library. The school is already showing promise: Newsweek reports that in just a year it has already made the top three schools in the city, despite enrolment by lottery.
The UK could have had something similar: for four years, inventor extraordinaire lord of the air currents Sir James Dyson strove to set up his own school in Bath, where he first cut his teeth as an engineer. But the plans floundered on the location, and in 2008, Dyson abandoned his plans altogether.
Of course, the Dysons of the next generation may make it anyway, but, concludes Schuler, we need to be more active if we’re to get more children not just gawping at screens, but wondering just what powers them in the first place.
“Is it a problem? Yeah I think it is, we need to provide more opportunities. The great minds, they’re going to be the great minds regardless,” says Schuler. “It’s a case of how many great minds can you make.”