As a child growing up in Silicon Valley, Apple founder Steve Jobs liked to tinker. He spent many days fiddling with the electronic gadgets in his neighbor's garage, figuring how to put systems together and how to take them apart.
Innovation often begins in childhood, where imagination combines with free time to explore grand ideas. That's why, for almost 30 years, the Invent Iowa program has opened up a similar avenue for exploration for tens of thousands of K-12 students. An initiative of the University of Iowa's Belin-Blank Center, Invent Iowa is the UI's oldest Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) outreach program, designed to encourage talented young people to think creatively and solve problems through the invention process. With humorous contraptions that simplify household chores or heartwarming devices that show compassion for animals, Iowa's brightest grade-schoolers amaze and inspire in a program that culminates in a statewide competition.
From among them, perhaps the next Steve Jobs will emerge.
"I love how these kids are so down-to-earth—they take a real-world problem in their lives and try to develop a solution," says Susan Assouline, 75BS, 84EdS, 88PhD, director of the Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development in the College of Education. "They try to make life better. Since the very beginning, I've always appreciated how many of these students invent things to help their parents or their grandparents, a farmer or a person with disability. Through it all, we're able to find real talent."
In fact, a team of nine girls from Council Bluffs who placed in last year's Invent Iowa scholarship contest earned a provisional patent for a lightweight titanium wheelchair that converts into a walker—the Walk 'N Wheel—designed for the elderly and others who need assistance getting around.
Previously, the competition whittled down its list of finalists through local, regional, and state "invention conventions" before moving in recent years to an initial electronic submission system. This past spring, the contest attracted some 200 online entries. Twenty-four finalists from across the state then competed in-person for six winning spots at the 2014 State Invent Iowa Meritorious Scholarship Competition at the UI's Belin-Blank Center. Although Belin-Blank administers the Invent Iowa program, the annual convention—where students present their inventions before a panel of judges—alternates between UI and Iowa State University. Interviews with the judges follow the presentations, and the top six competitors receive a $500 College of Engineering scholarship to either the UI or ISU. All finalists receive a $100 cash award.
Although Invent Iowa does promote student interest in STEM subjects, Assouline says that, more importantly, it nurtures the pursuit of innovation. Students learn that the first step is to start with a question.
For a fourth-grader one year, that question was "How can I keep my cereal from getting soggy?" The answer was the Cereal Plate—a bowl with an angled bottom that keeps the cereal and milk separate until they are mixed together. A fifth-grader once asked "How can I keep the dining room table legs out of my way when I sit at the corner?" Enter the Special Corner Chair, which features a customized groove enabling a person to pull right up to the table.
An instructional activity guide from Belin-Blank helps teachers navigate their students through the entire invention process—from the germination of an idea to product development and then marketing. Beyond the competition, Invent Iowa makes a curriculum guide available to help Iowa teachers cultivate creative, imaginative lessons that enhance their regular classroom programming.
If these children are any indication, the future looks bright.
The Obstinate Susan: "My little sister Charlotte was ALWAYS getting into the Lazy Susan and taking out food," observes Sydney Jones in her enthusiastic and on-point marketing video. This poses a big problem, adds her co-presenter, invention partner, and fellow fourth-grader Grace Hulsebus, because babies and toddlers can choke on items or get their fingers trapped in the door. Baby Charlotte demonstrates the hazards, before the girls go on to describe the effective contraption they created that's easy for parents to install and remove, yet renders the Lazy Susan impossible for children to open.
The Can Do: At his house, third-grader Vance Walz takes out the garbage. One day, he noted how vigorously he had to shake the plastic bags before lining the empty container, and also how difficult it often was for him to lift a heavy load of garbage out of the can. He thought about how his grandparents and others might easily hurt their backs or aggravate sore muscles, so he developed the Can Do. Vance cut a hole in the bottom of a plastic garbage can and installed a fan that sucks the air out so the bag fits perfectly (also ensuring that no space is wasted). Additionally, he glued a stool and foot base to the bottom for leverage when he pulls a filled garbage bag out of the can.
Bounce Back Target: As Max Murphy astutely observes, sometimes a person just doesn't have anyone else to practice soccer with. But that doesn't stop this sixth-grade soccer player from staying on top of his game. Thanks to his own ingenuity, Max can now spend hours alone in the yard with a soccer ball and the Bounce Back Target, which returns the ball after each kick. Made of light wood with springs attaching it to a frame, the target also features hooks that can hang over a goal and stakes for driving into the ground—making it easy to use anywhere.
Tater Legs: A potato contains up to 80 percent water, which is why it takes so darn long to cook. Sixth-grader Emerald Elton, sporting an impressive white chef's hat, begins with a science lesson about the stubborn composition of potatoes and why every good cook needs Tater Legs. After reading a book titled Extraordinary Uses for Ordinary Things, Emerald learned that raising a potato off the microwave floor allows the electromagnetic waves to pass beneath, thus cooking the tater faster. She presented her design to a plastics company, which turned the concept into Tater Legs. P.S. Why did the potato cross the road? Because he saw a fork up ahead.
Workout Pocket Bra: Fifth-graders Kylie Wilson and Lydia Fisher don their workout gear to present a solution for the young lady who wants to stay physically fit but has no place to store her iPhone. Kylie and Lydia capitalized on their frustration at having no place to stash their personal belongings during physical activity. Assuring viewers that their product is unlike anything else available in stores, the girls explain the design of the Workout Pocket Bra. A sparkly pink inner layer features a center pocket big enough to safely hold an iPhone or iPod, while two side pockets protect money and keys. The outer cover—available in several fashionable designs—provides extra protection and a stylish layered look.
Hot Tub Invention:Shot on location at an Iowa farm, Reilly Finarty and Amy Sullivan's video reflects the heart of the Hawkeye State. Sensitive to the needs of their farm animals during harsh Iowa winters, fifth-graders Reilly and Amy began with this question: How do you keep livestock water from freezing without electricity? The girls wanted to come up with a more convenient way than changing water daily. As a merciless wind whips and a persistent goat nibbles at Reilly's coat sleeve, the girls describe a reservoir that uses the sun's rays to heat water. Sun reflects off a mirror and down into tubes equipped with magnifying glasses to intensify the heat, while water stays warm in an insulated bucket.
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