Feb. 27, 2023
One of my first encounters with the concept of invention education was when I attended an event celebrating high school InvenTeam award winners. I was bowled over by the student teams from across the country who had created prototypes to enable fresh food production, address gaps in rural health care, and improve the safety of firefighters.
I learned that these teams were facilitated by teachers who brought together a diversity of students who might not have engaged with one another previously. They included students who had struggled with traditional academics, but excelled once they joined the school invention team. It was clear that student interests were ignited, and they eagerly collaborated with peers to create meaningful products to benefit their communities.
Invention education is a pedagogical approach to learning, where educators help students define a real problem affecting others, design a solution, build a prototype, and respond to user feedback. This way of learning often engages young women and minorities, who do not traditionally identify with STEM subjects.
On the invention education website, students and educators alike share how invention education has engaged them in ways of learning and teaching that have enabled students to learn new things, build critical thinking skills, contribute, and thrive.
Rachna Valpara, who was a student at Jonathan Law High School in Connecticut, says:
I think everyone has a little bit of creativity in them. But I think invention in general nurtures that side of you and allows it to grow, which is what I think is so special about it. It takes something in you that you don’t even know you have and showcases it through your work.
When students are invested in their own learning, teachers are able to focus on being facilitators of learning. Lisa Rogers, who works at Smyrna Elementary School in Georgia, says:
Invention education incorporates so many tenets—we’ve got problem solving, problem seeking, empathy, iterating. I think that as teachers, we need to encourage learners to become 21st century thinkers.
Doug Scott, a teacher at 6-12 Hopkinton Public Schools in Massachusetts, shares that the invention education process positively impacts teachers as well as students:
I never would have predicted that my path would lead from coaching sports to teaching robotics and engineering, and that my name would be listed as a co-inventor with my students on an official U.S. patent.
As I heard and read more stories of young people inventing solutions for real problems that reflected their cultural identities, interests, and communities, it became clear that the invention education learning approach is an instance of culturally responsive education (CRE) that gives agency to young people with the right support from educators and mentors. They are able to invent solutions to real-world problems that result in a relevant, tangible, and often patentable product. For example, Jeanelle Dao’s grandfather had arthritis in his hands, making it difficult and painful for him to open doors. A seventh-grade science fair inspired her to design a wireless mat programmed to unlock a deadbolt in response to a specific, password-like set of foot taps.
At New America, we have been examining inclusive teaching and learning practices to understand the barriers to and opportunities within CRE for all young people. We know that it involves connecting academics to students’ daily lives, cultural backgrounds, and concerns in ways that support engagement, achievement, and empowerment. When materials are high-quality and teaching is done well, students learn about language, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and cross-cultural knowledge; they build identity when they learn about societal expectations of themselves and others. Outcomes of CRE include enhancing student engagement, improving academic achievement, supporting learning about a variety of subjects, and influencing career interests.
Given its tenets, it is not surprising that invention education is an example of culturally responsive and inclusive practice. It is an approach that aligns specifically with three of the core competencies of culturally responsive educators identified by New America:
- Competency 3: Draw on students’ culture to shape curriculum and instruction.
- Providing links between new academic concepts and students' background knowledge that comes from their families, communities, and experiences can help bridge new learning for students.
- Competency 4: Bring real-world issues into the classroom.
- Address the "so what?" factor of instruction by helping students see how the knowledge and skills they learn in school are valuable to their lives, families, and communities.
- Competency 6: Promote respect for student differences.
- Foster learning environments that are respectful, inclusive, and affirming by modeling how to engage across differences and embodying respect for all forms of diversity.
To find out more about the growing field of invention education, I reached out to two experts to explore how this approach aligns with today's needs: a senior program officer from The Lemelson Foundation, a leading funder; and the director of a network of K–12 educators, nonprofit leaders, researchers, government agencies, funders, and others who are furthering the practice of invention education.
The Education of Invention
Invention education offers young people opportunities to develop ways of thinking, capabilities, and dispositions to problem-solving identified as attributes of inventors. It is a pedagogical approach that integrates the process of invention into teaching and learning, draws conceptual knowledge from multiple disciplines, and focuses on problem identification through empathy and collaborative problem-solving resulting in novel solutions.
It embodies transdisciplinary learning and convergence education, described as how science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education should move through a pathway where disciplines converge and where teaching and learning moves from disciplinary to transdisciplinary. A recent White House report notes that “Invention education has demonstrated increased student engagement in STEM while contributing to the development of characteristics, skills, and mindsets needed for student pathways to innovation and entrepreneurship.”
Whether programs are designed to support individual inventors or teams, students choose the problems to solve and draw upon knowledge in various disciplines as well as their personal experiences to develop real solutions. This approach activates deep engagement and learning and fosters connections to the students' communities.
Over the past couple of decades, invention education has become an emerging field of practice in K–12 and higher education, and has been encouraged by leading funders such as The Lemelson Foundation, which recognizes the promise of teaching invention skills and mindset to students. Although research is limited, the design and implementation of programs are often guided by related research from other fields, such as design thinking, systems thinking, maker education, computer science education and computational thinking, project-based learning, and entrepreneurship.
Invention education brings together design and systems thinking that contribute to the development and iteration of prototypes; is set in the context of creating a solution with market value that can be used in the real world; and is overlaid in a process that includes components of project-based learning, like teamwork, communication, and learning how to ask questions to identify the real problem(s).
Data specific to invention education indicates that this approach is making a positive difference for K–12 students in both in- and out-of-school settings. For instance, studies related to developing the inventive education mindset are associated with students' perception of improved confidence, leadership skills, and social competencies. Additional studies show that students develop technical and social skills that boost their confidence and open doors to pathways and college aspirations they may not have considered previously.
Dasia Taylor first encountered invention education in her 11th-grade chemistry honors class at Iowa City West High School. Thinking she might pursue a career in medicine, Dasia explored suture technology for a science fair project. With support from teacher Carolyn Walling, Dasia developed a prototype for a low-cost “smart” suture to help detect infections. Despite a childhood full of curiosity and innovative ideas, it was the perspective of others that changed her self-perception. She says, “Junior year is when people started calling me an inventor. It took me a good long while to actually call myself an inventor—I thought I was doing the science fair just because I knew I could do it. By no means did I plan on inventing a medical device.”
Dasia went on to win top prizes at state and national science fairs. She is now a sophomore at the University of Iowa and an entrepreneur refining her patent-pending invention: color-changing sutures that detect infections. As a young Black woman inventor-entrepreneur, Dasia is acutely aware of the diversity and inclusion gaps along the invention pathway. In her words, “It’s not that we can’t invent; it’s that we haven’t been invited to invent.”
Researchers have identified the fact that educators need knowledge and experience in guiding students in open-ended, problem-based inquiry, scaffolding instruction, and integrating student backgrounds to make such inquiry possible, particularly for diverse learners. Successful educators using the invention approach to learning recognize and adapt their teaching styles in order to provide students with engaging activities that result in demonstrating competencies, acquiring skills, and developing mindsets attributed to successful innovators.
Educators such as Antonio Gamboa have seen invention education pedagogy spark engagement, leadership, and empathy in students. Antonio is a veteran science teacher in the Pomona Unified School District in California where the majority of students in his classroom are Latinx and qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
Encouraged to get his students involved in the opportunities provided by the Lemelson-MIT program, Antonio was skeptical, saying, “Back then, I thought there was no way I could invent something. I thought an invention is something you just stumbled upon. I didn’t think invention was a process that could be learned or taught.” His perception of who could be an inventor was the biggest stumbling block to exploring invention education for his students.
As Antonio began exploring invention education pedagogy, he saw how it engaged his students, built teamwork and empathy skills, and gave them a sense of agency. “Once students realize that there is not a right or wrong answer, that it’s just a process that you give yourself over to, they relax, because they finally have an outlet to fail safely,” he said. “That opportunity doesn’t seem to be present in most of their classes or their lives. It’s a way to see themselves differently—that they can have original ideas about things they care about and can apply them.”
In his school, invention education pedagogy has helped to change students’ perceptions of STEM. “Since introducing invention education, we’ve seen tremendous growth in student interest in science,” Antonio says. “In the most recent graduating class, 15 females intend to pursue STEM education and careers. We’ve never seen anything like that before.”
From the Local Classroom to the Global Economy
According to the OECD, our next generation of citizens will need strong academic skills along with curiosity, imagination, empathy, entrepreneurship, confidence, and determination. Effective education systems will need to go beyond traditional teaching techniques to help a diversity of learners succeed in work, school, and community. Invention education can be a powerful solution where students gain the critical thinking skills, technical know-how, and confidence to solve the problems of the future and drive our economy forward.
Implementing the invention education approach with those who are historically underrepresented in technology and business can also build a more diverse talent pool, ready to help solve community and global issues. Education and workforce systems can begin to address inequities in education and wealth while engendering a culture of collaborative problem-solving and community engagement. Economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues termed communities that are historically underrepresented in STEM studies and employment, specifically women and people of color from low-income families, the “Lost Einsteins,” and estimate that the rate of innovation could quadruple in the U.S. economy with more equitable investment in educational opportunities.
Patti Curtis, a former fellow in the U.S. Department of Education, is a STEM education policy expert and advocate who has worked at both the state and federal level. She sees invention education as a method of instruction that can be applied to any number of disciplines, particularly in the STEM fields, to help prepare students for future careers. She says, “Government writ large wants the U.S. to remain competitive, for the workforce to be creative, for the U.S. to have more patents than anybody else.”
Curtis sees the opportunity for better invention and innovation if invention education pedagogy can be implemented for every student. “Underrepresented students may bring different experiences, concerns, needs, ideas, and solutions to the table or team that can be creative, unique, and extraordinary. We need a rich tapestry of input to solve local and global problems; that is why all students can and should engage in invention education,” she says.
Invention education is an emerging field that transcends disciplinary boundaries. It is a student-centered approach that equips students to solve problems they care about and impact others. The instructional approach responds to the need for problem-solvers who draw on expertise from multiple disciplines, their cultural knowledge, and a diverse range of personal experiences to construct innovative solutions to real-world challenges. It can foster a more skilled, entrepreneurial workforce that ultimately creates new jobs and fuels economic development in local and global communities. And when done well, invention education is culturally responsive, inclusive, and relevant.
Over the past 10 years, a network of invention education practitioners, advocates, and funders have come together to make invention education more accessible for every K–12 student, and to support pathways to postsecondary invention experiences. Guided by a vision where the inventive mindset that exists in everyone is cultivated and celebrated, the network works to spread the practice of invention education, especially to those who are too often left out of STEM education and employment.
Next steps include:
- Building greater awareness at the local, state, and federal levels of invention education’s relevance to STEM and its importance to our future economy and global community. This includes engaging more teachers, administrators, and district leaders; supporting them with professional development and peer mentoring opportunities; and leveraging the breadth and depth of the community to reach state and federal policymakers with data and stories of invention education's impact.
- Investing in more research to assess invention education's impact along the K–12 pathway and into postsecondary experiences. We need more data on students in classrooms, after school, in urban and rural areas, and those who are underrepresented to showcase the promise of the invention education approach.
Through the growing practice of invention education, students at all grade levels challenge themselves to solve real-world problems. Alongside their teachers, they ideate and iterate, prototype and experiment, fail and try again. Some end up with a patent. All end up with more resilience, creativity, and inventiveness—the core competencies that drive innovation.