Eduporium Weekly | Inventing as a Part of Education

  • Posted on: March 3, 2018 - 10:13am
  • By: alarmand

New things are being invented every single day. Sure, some of them are relatively pointless, but, every once in a while, something comes along that has the potential to change things entirely. That’s what we want out of today’s education -- the creation of students who are capable of changing things entirely. When students are given the freedom to invent unheard of solutions to problems and go about solving them in unique ways, they’re building a foundation for the future. A lot of the tools we’ll use in the next decade or two haven’t been invented yet. More likely than not, a student somewhere in a K-12 school is going to be responsible for an invention that reinvents our lives.


How to Inspire Student Inventors


Like a lot of things, much of the inspiration that occurs in education is born from opportunity. New experiences in the classroom lead to new levels of engagement and excitement for children. Bold new research actually says that when students are more engaged with what’s happening, they’re much more likely to have an educational breakthrough or start building some authentic 21st century skills. It often doesn't take a lot for an invention to be discovered and, with the opportunity to explore their creativity, students could easily discover something useful. The key is providing them with the chance to be creative, active, and excited. Education is not about forcing all students to be great at everything. Some benefit much more when they’re allowed to pursue one thing they’re great at.


Inventing doesn’t have to necessarily mean creating new devices or solutions; it can be as simple as students inventing new ways of learning. However they’re inventing in the classroom, their teachers can help create some inspiration in a few simple ways. They top ways teachers can help is by researching and providing supplies that are likely to spark some exciting ideas and by providing constant motivation and feedback for their students. Maker tools, like robotics kits and 3D printers, are great for getting students’ minds spinning while they use technology to invent. At the same time, kids can always benefit from positive reinforcement and find new areas of inspiration when their first approach to inventing doesn’t work out exactly as they had hoped.


One other effective way to inspire students, especially when they’re struggling for ideas, is to simply give them some. There are so many inspirational people creating so much in today’s world that brief exposure to inventions that have already been created could very well inspire new ones from kids. Students also need the opportunity to show and discuss their work with a mentor. These mentors don’t even necessarily need to be somebody who has invented something themselves -- just an educator who knows what it takes to develop a creative idea and turn it into a tangible outcome. When all is said and done, students should start to develop their own definition of ‘invention.’ Not all inventions have to be driven by technology or provide an immediate solution. There are tons of useful inventions waiting to be discovered and all it takes is the proper motivation to help a student be the one to do it!


Inventiveness Made Possible by Environment


What’s more inspiring? A classroom with 28 identical desks attached to uncomfortable chairs or a collaborative area where kids can move around and try out different ways of learning? Sorry, didn’t mean to pose such a tough question. The correct answer is option No. 2. Many students lack inventive skills simply because they’re never given the chance to develop them. One of the top reasons they’re never given that chance is because there’s nowhere for them to do it. As you likely know by now, many schools have sought solutions to this problem by building makerspaces or repurposing other rooms in the school, like the library, for students to tinker, design, and invent. Once it’s built, teachers just have to fill it with the right tools and the inspiration will pretty much take care of itself!


The ideal environment for this type of learning is a makerspace. In makerspaces, students, who may be as young as first or second grade, are able to solve problems with their own creativity rather than with the help of their teachers. Another reason makerspaces are so great is that a lot of the materials teachers can fill them with are very cheap -- and quite possibly free! Educators tell stories all the time of bringing in whatever old materials they have lying around their homes, including things like paper towel rolls, old boxes, random pieces of plastic, and so on. So, what do students do with this yard sale of random stuff? They invent. Nobody ever said that inventing had to be intricate, articulate, or guided. As long as students are creating something new out of something old, they’re definitely still inventing. This ‘upcycling’ approach is very popular in the maker community and something teachers should definitely look into when designing their innovative environments.


After years of use in schools around the world, educators, for the most part, seem to be on the same page when it comes to the value of makerspaces. With so much of an emphasis being placed on STEAM education, teachers are finding that the environments they create for their students go a long way in the inventiveness they display since these spaces tend to mimic what it’s like to work together to solve problems in the real world. When students are left alone to create a design or really anything else for that matter, those who struggle with traditional learning tend to excel. There’s no pressure in makerspaces -- no pressure to pass and no pressure to get a perfect score. There’s just the opportunity for open-ended exploration. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again. Just give children the tools and you’ll probably be pretty surprised by what they’re able to invent on the spot.


Getting Students to Invent to Better the World


There’s a good chance you’ve seen a pretty pointless invention lately. If people want to create devices that, while serving a purpose, don’t serve a very important one, then that’s up to them. We want students inventing for good, though, and, hopefully, changing the world a small bit in the process. That’s not to say that all of the inventions in this day and age are pointless in the grand scheme of things. In fact, most of them are not. Students need to know the difference between using their inventiveness for good and using it just to use it, however. When preaching the importance of inventing to students, teachers should stress the idea that their inventions should, in some way, contribute to making the world a better place. That’s when true STEM education and project-based learning come to fruition.


Most students today are interested in creating with technology, but teachers should reinforce the point that they can also use technology to spark positive change. There is always something within a student’s community that can be improved upon. Or, they might have somebody close to them who is struggling with an illness or a disability. Today’s students are going to be responsible for creating solutions to help make the lives of people easier. We always hear stories of diabetic patients getting to try out some new form of insulin injection that’s easier and less painful than the last. When given opportunities to practice their invention skills, students could perhaps light a spark of innovation that leads to someone else (or themselves) creating a way to make something easier for people with a certain medical condition. This is how inventing for good helps leave a positive impact on the world.


When engaging in a project that will impact their community firsthand, students also get valuable project planning experience before, during, and after inventing something. This includes planning out the design of the invention, where it will physically be used, who it’s intended to help, and so forth. During implementation of their invention, they would have to manage how it is used and make adjustments if necessary. And, after, students could be responsible for gathering information and drawing conclusions based on what they’ve learned. This, of course, combines inventive learning with interactive, project-based learning in a more exciting way. It also gives them worthwhile practice with the design process -- another fine way to prepare them for a future based on inventing solutions to help others!


It’s Easy to Get Kids Inventing -- Even if they Have no Experience


Not everybody is going to have invented something in their lifetime. Even fewer kids in elementary school are going to be able to say they have. The beauty of getting started with inventing new things is that it requires literally zero experience to begin. Kids only need one thing in order to have the chance to invent something significant and that one thing is creativity. The willingness to fail wouldn’t hurt them either. A lot of the time, the best inventions are created by accident or when an inventor tinkers around with various objects until something works. Hmm, tinkering and inventing...What could students use to help them make those things meaningful? The answer to that (and the answer to a lot of invention questions) is littleBits.’


We said above that the one thing children need to invent something is creativity. We’re not backing away from that, but there are some other things that can help them achieve their goals and one of those things is technology. Technology, as you know, can open a number of different doors for students and for people of all ages really. Most significantly, it’s able to empower kids to create things that otherwise would not be possible. That’s among the reasons why littleBits is so great for getting kids started with inventing. Its technology is super accessible and simple enough for just about any student to use and understand. Sure, most kits come with project guides to get kids started, but we’re more interested in where they go from there. To really get inventing, we’re hopeful that students will build on these inventions (literally) and use technology to create a brand new device that is actually capable of getting something done.


We stock over 20 littleBits kits on our store and they keep coming out with new ones that take STEM-based inventing to the next level! Among the latest in their progression from simple to more complex is the Code Kit, which allows students to write authentic code to control the devices they create. It’s available as a standalone kit or in class packs suited for 16, 24, or 30 students! The premise remains the same in that students are still following guides to build functional circuits. However, they’re then able to connect those circuits to a computer and control their functions by creating block-based codes! Aside from the Code Kit, the Gizmos & Gadgets Kit is also great for budding student inventors as well as the cloudBit Kit and Smart Home Kit, which both incorporate the Internet of Things. For a simplified way of introducing technology for inventing, littleBits is definitely a top-rate option.


Student Inventions Make Positive Impact on their Communities


The ultimate goal of project-based learning and student inventing is the creation of solutions that can help the community in some way. Many students assume the challenge of inventing something new to mean that it must involve technology and, while technology is generally a component of modern inventions, it’s not completely necessary. We happen to like technology, though, especially for kids to use in their learning. Students in all grade levels have access to technology in some form or fashion and, with the popularity of makerspaces and the Maker Movement at an all-time high, inventing is happening all the time. These days, student inventions range from addressing environmental and social concerns to tools that make discovery and analysis easier. A lot of student inventors face struggles, but that is part of the journey to creating something meaningful in today’s society.


Students should start by recognizing some of the problems we’re facing today and determine which ones they are able and interested in solving. There have been a few stories of student inventors that stuck out to us recently as each instance featured kids who were either affected by a particular problem or know somebody else who was. Their inventions served as solutions to hopefully eliminate a certain problem from ever happening again. One such invention was created by a couple of junior high students in Arkansas, who designed The Baby Saver 2000 -- a car seat with built-in cooling capabilities to ensure a small child would never die or be injured if left in a hot car. They even implemented technology directly into the car seat that can monitor the child’s condition and send out an alert if its sensors began reading temperatures at a certain level. This is the perfect example of being aware of common problems and using technology and creativity to design a viable solution.


Another example of a student invention we liked took the concept of a vending machine and transformed it to solve a community problem. In some places, homelessness is much more common than anyone of us would like to acknowledge and many citizens of the community do not have access to the essentials they need, including shower products. A couple of high school students in Mississippi came up with the idea for a shower vending machine that could be placed in the center of town. They recognized that homelessness was a recurring issue in their community and used their creativity to design a potential solution. They even upcycled the technology they used in their vending machine and designed it to run on solar power to save energy! The machine accepts tokens, which those in need are able to obtain from community officers, putting the final mark of thoughtfulness on an already incredible idea!


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Image: © Make Magazine