A new grant for young inventors

Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam opens a Junior Varsity division

The 2007 InvenTeam at Ardsley High School received a United States patent for their invention that helps wheelchairs over curbs.

Lemelson-MIT program

Inventing something is a great way to learn. Building a wind machine can teach you about engineering. Designing a coffee maker forces you to consider aspects of chemistry. As students try to solve a problem, they begin to understand variables, engineering and design.

The Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams Initiative provides grants of up to $10,000 to help high-school student groups invent. InvenTeams go on to work with scientists at local universities, to patent their devices and to make national news for their developments. But while juniors and seniors in high school might take quickly to inventing, younger students may need to get their feet wet before they feel comfortable tackling their own inventions. That’s why the InvenTeams initiative has launched a Junior Varsity division for students in 9th and 10th grades. The program will provide training for groups to come up with their own ideas and, hopefully, later apply for its “varsity” InvenTeam grants.

“We have 10 years of experience with InvenTeams, and even though the program is designed for all high school grades, we found most tended to be juniors and seniors” observes Leigh Estabrooks. She is the invention-education officer for Lemelson-MIT, in Cambridge, Mass. Estabrooks said that when her group looked into why younger grades were not participating, it found that “they were interested but less confident in their abilities to be inventive.”

The program’s Junior Varsity initiative is currently undergoing pilot testing in Massachusetts and Houston, Texas. Unlike the varsity division, in which students design their own inventions, the JV squads receive more hands-on assistance, with educational materials provided. The training is divided into two-month units that help teens explore fields like materials science and electronics. “We lead them through the invention process,” says Estabrooks. “And at the end of each unit we give them their own problem to solve.”

For its ongoing Junior Varsity pilot project, Lemelson-MIT recruited five groups from Massachusetts and five from Houston. Currently, they are designing shoe soles. Teachers in charge of the teams receive professional-development seminars and materials to teach kids technical skills. The educators are encouraged to guide the students in thinking about how the bottom surface of a shoe sole is designed. Along the way, the young inventors must learn about mechanics, movement and materials science. At the end of the unit, students are given time to design and build their own shoe sole before moving on to the next topic. But the pilot teams don’t want to move on quite yet. “Now they want to design the whole shoe!” Estabrooks says.

Once they complete this first unit, the JV teams will move on to study wearable electronics.

These younger inventors are encouraged to submit their designs to local science fairs. All teams get to participate in a local capstone event where students will get to share their work with the general public. The pilot capstone events will be held on May 9 in Boston, and on May 29 in Houston.

The program is co-sponsored by Stanley Black and Decker, which provides tools to the selected groups.

Open applications for the Junior Varsity grant will be available on the website in August.  The program will offer 30 matching grants with partner organizations. Lemelson-MIT will provide up to $2,000 of funding in the form of materials, activities, teacher training, and funding to travel to the end-of-year capstone event. A partnering organization — whether it’s a school, museum, community center or other program — must provide an equal contribution, which can include space and supplies for the capstone event.  Hopefully, future expansions will mean that teachers all over the country can apply to take part, although this fall the program will be expanding only into the Pacific Northwest.

Power Words

mechanics  The study of how things move.

materials scientist  A scientist who studies how the atomic and molecular structure of  a material is related to its overall properties. Materials scientists can design new materials or analyze existing ones. Their analyses of a material’s overall properties (such as density, strength and melting point) can help engineers and other researchers select materials that best suited to a new application.

patent  A legal document that gives inventors control over how their inventions — including devices, machines, materials, processes and substances — are made, used and sold for a set period of time. Currently, this is 20 years from the date you first file for the patent. The U.S. government only grants patents to inventions shown to be unique.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.