By Danny Briere

When nine-year-old Gabriel Mesa was asked by his teacher to invent something that could solve a real problem, he didn’t have to look very far for inspiration.

Gabriel had noticed that his grandfather’s tracheotomy tube often would fall off, causing his grandfather pain. Gabriel knew there must be a better way to attach it. After giving the problem some thought, he came up with a design for a screw-on connector he called the “Breath Saver,” which not only was more secure but also kept out bacteria more effectively. Since that time, Gabriel—now 16—has invented numerous biomedical devices aimed at improving peoples’ lives, from a watch to help schizophrenia patients to an IV alert.

Lilianna Zyszkowski was just a few years older than Gabriel when she had the idea for her first invention, the PillMinder, which uses the touch sensors commonly found in TV remote controls to track when people have taken their pills. Since then, she has gone on to invent what she calls “Dolphin Goggles,” which alert swimmers doing the backstroke when they are approaching the pool wall, as well as a device called the BabyMinder, which sends parents an alert on their smartphone when their baby has a wet diaper or a fever. Lilianna has become such a prolific inventor that last year—at age 15—she received an Ingenuity Award from the Smithsonian Institution.

Gabriel and Lilianna are two of the thousands of success stories we’ve seen at the Connecticut Invention Convention, which has brought together young inventors throughout the state to compete for prizes and scholarships for the last 34 years.

As K-12 leaders across the nation look for ways to engage more students in STEM education, we believe we’ve hit upon the “secret sauce” that can help: when students use science, technology, engineering and math principles to design and invent their own solutions to everyday problems—and then take them to market—it deeply engages even traditionally underrepresented students in these subjects. It brings STEM alive by connecting students to these topics in a very personal way, while also empowering students beyond academics.

Adding invention and entrepreneurship to the K-12 curriculum teaches valuable problem-solving skills that will serve students well no matter what field they pursue. It also provides a necessary context for learning STEM skills that can attract more interest in these subjects—especially among girls and minorities.

In school-based engineering programs, students are often given a problem to solve, like building a robot that can complete a certain task. With invention education, students are tasked with finding their own problem to solve, which makes the process much more personally relevant and encourages greater passion.

Invention and entrepreneurship education leverages this passion to spark interest in STEM-related topics, and it does so equitably across demographic lines: More than half (52 percent) of the participants in this annual competition have been girls. We’ve also seen high participation (24 percent) among underserved students as well, including Hispanic students—who have accounted for 17 percent of convention participants.

Inspired by the success we saw in Connecticut, we began looking for ways to bring invention and entrepreneurship education to more students nationwide. We traveled the country talking with state and local education leaders, and we learned that invention competitions existed at the district level or higher in at least 26 states. But there was no coordination among these various programs—they were all individual islands.

Believing we could have a much larger impact by joining these islands together, we formed a national nonprofit organization in 2015 called the STEMIE Coalition. Our steering committee consists of representatives from state and local invention and entrepreneurship programs from across the U.S., and our goal is to provide the framework, curriculum, and support needed to bring these programs to more than 10 million students each year.

We’re trying to enhance the programs that currently exist in schools by helping them learn from each other. Where such programs don’t yet exist, we’re trying to build pathways to creating them. For instance, in California—the home of Silicon Valley—there has been hardly any focus on invention education. We’ve set out to change that by helping to launch the California Invention Convention, which we expect to reach a majority of California school districts within five years.

Teaching invention and entrepreneurship education is very different for most teachers. To support them, we offer curricular resources and professional development services. And last May, we also convened the first-ever National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Exposition, which drew more than 800 people—students, educators and parents—from 17 states. Held at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters in Washington, D.C., the convention will become an annual event, serving as a national “finals” competition for the winners of state and local invention and entrepreneurship conventions.

Invention and entrepreneurship education helps prepare students for successful careers, while also developing a more diverse 21st-century workforce. More importantly, students learn critical skills that will prepare them for success in life. Like Gabriel and Lilianna, they look at a problem and they think: I can solve that. Then they go out and do it. Their confidence soars, and they become habitual problem solvers. That’s the type of environment we want to create in our schools.

For more, see:

Danny Briere is CEO of the STEMIE Coalition and a board member of the Connecticut Invention Convention. Follow them on Twitter: @StemieCoalition.


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