Building an Invention Education movement in Oregon

By Technology Association of Oregon.

The Oregon MESA team at Ockley Green School in North Portland doesn’t look like your typical technology club. The students don’t have expensive computers or 3D printers. Many ofthe participants don’t get As or Bs. Their families may be struggling with unemployment or learning English as a new language.

But the school’s STEAM coordinator Kristin Moon reports that none of these challenges have stopped the students from becoming inventors. This year, they created a functional prosthetic arm from donated and scrounged components. The process of learning to invent, Moon reports, has been transformative. Her students are on a path to graduate and go to college because they’ve learned to be capable, confident problem solvers.

Moon was one of fifty educators who gathered last month at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) to talk about how to bring opportunities like this to students across Oregon. They represented in-school and afterschool programs from technology centers like Hillsboro, and from as far away as Florence and Culver. Their aim was expanding access to invention education. Many of our students still learn science from a textbook and think engineering is the realm of distant PhDs in Boston or Silicon Valley. We are working to change that.

The Lemelson Foundation hosted this convening because we have worked in education for years but rarely have the chance to hear directly from educators. We identified some of the key players in Oregon who are working to offer hands-on opportunities to identify problems, leverage STEM skills to invent solutions, and learn how to deliver those solutions to customers. They shared frustrations and challenges around funding, access to curriculum and resources, and difficulties convincing administrators of the value of the invention approach. Many educators also pointed out that our educational system does not reward “successful failure”—a term coined by one of the participants to describe the types of failures that inventors recognize as part of the path towards a functional product.

Encouraged to think boldly, the educators also pinpointed opportunities to set Oregon students on the pathway to realizing their potential for inventiveness. They called for more ongoing preparation for teachers and out-of-school program providers to give them the knowledge and skills they need to offer students the skills in what we refer to as “The Inventor’s Toolkit.” The toolkit is based on the belief that young inventors require tools to:

– Cultivate the capacity to think critically, and identify real-world problems and possible solutions in the user’s context through questioning, empathy, idea generation, and design process thinking.
– Build a strong base of knowledge in skills necessary to invent, including STEM.
– Develop the ability to turn ideas into solutions through creating designs, fabricating prototypes, and incorporating entrepreneurial thinking.

The educators at the convening asked for help in telling the stories of students whose lives were transformed when they recognized their own ability to invent and solve real problems. And they asked for resources.

This is where the business community, particularly Oregon’s technology industry, comes in.

Educators want entrepreneurs to come to their classes and inspire their students. They want inventors and engineers to mentor students as they design, prototype, fail, design, and prototype again. They want industry to tell decision makers that the skills students gain through invention education are critical to Oregon’s future economic success.

The Lemelson Foundation believes in the power of invention to improve lives here in Oregon. We heard the voices of educators and are working to give every Oregon student access to game-changing invention education programming. Get in touch and let us know if you want to volunteer your time or resources, and we’ll help you find the right opportunity to transform the lives of Oregon’s future inventors.

By Rachel Jagoda Brunette

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