The Flexibility of Computational Thinking

Edutopia

Three middle school projects—in English, math, and history—use computational thinking skills to address social justice topics.

 

Two students looking at data on a laptop with worksheets scattered in front of them
Courtesy of Eli Sheldon
Students carefully plot their next maneuver to grab land in the simulation Scramble for Africa.

Computational thinking (CT) is a set of skills students can leverage to tackle hard problems of all kinds using ideas from computer science. These skills include:

  • Algorithmic thinking: using a well-defined series of steps to achieve a desired outcome
  • Decomposition: approaching a complicated problem by focusing on one piece at a time
  • Abstraction: representing a complicated system with a simple model
  • Pattern recognition: analyzing data and using trends to inform solutions

CT can be used to address issues far beyond computer science, and projects with a social justice emphasis provide a platform for students to apply these skills to engaging, authentic learning opportunities. As Sydney Chaffee says in her TEDx talk on social justice in schools, “Authentic learning enables students to see and create connections in the world around them,” helping students understand why what they’re learning is vital.

Here are three examples of projects that teach social justice topics through a computational thinking lens.

REFORMING THE AMERICAN CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM

In this English language arts unit, seventh-grade students study the American criminal justice system while reading Walter Dean Myers’s Monster, a novel about a teen’s trial and imprisonment. In tandem with reading the novel, students conduct a mock trial of the familiar character Batman, using a flowchart to demonstrate the steps (the algorithm) that criminal suspects encounter. Batman is a useful defendant because students generally know about him and agree that his actions are illegal, though they disagree on whether he should be punished for those actions.

Harnessing the power of decomposition to break down our complicated legal system, student teams design their own justice systems. They establish policies on 12 topics, including drugs, mandatory minimums, body cameras, and juvenile detention. Using Twine, a platform for interactive storytelling, teams apply their laws to six real criminal cases. The outcome of each case is determined by that team’s previously established policies, which can be revised at the conclusion of the case.

Students come to realize that decisions that initially seemed obvious lead to unexpected consequences when applied in different real-world scenarios. They walk away from this unit having internalized the need for major reform in our criminal justice system, as well as why some policy changes are not as straightforward as they first appear.

SIMULATING THE SCRAMBLE FOR AFRICA

In this social studies simulation adapted from a lesson by Andrew Patterson, students in grades 7–9 represent the interests of major European powers in the colonization of Africa. Using abstraction with a simplified set of objectives (e.g., resource types, geographic regions, and climates) and a gridded map of the continent, students choose specific squares to claim each round. The amount of land they claim is dependent on their country’s relative strength and colonial focus in that era.

At the end of the game, students compare their results with the true outcome of African colonization at the start of the 20th century. Despite the simplistic nature of the simulation, the correlation between maps is typically strong. The political and logistical nuances have been abstracted away, helping students understand the high-level motivations and decisions involved.

During the first run, students let their competitive nature show without hesitation. However, they are then tasked with confronting the deeper impact of their colonizing efforts—for instance, what it really meant for these European armies to claim African land, abduct slaves for labor, and exhaust natural resources. In subsequent rounds, teams struggle to balance the morals behind their actions with their desire to “win” the game.

EVALUATING RACIAL BIAS IN TRAFFIC STOPS

In this series of math lessons on probability and population sampling, seventh-grade students calculate rates of drivers of different races being searched at traffic stops. They compare their findings to census data to determine if the numbers represent random sampling or show evidence of racial bias.

To set context, students learn about their legal rights during traffic stops and why race matters during interactions with police. Next, they create tree diagrams with data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to determine probabilities of being stopped by race, which they contrast with general population data. Using pattern recognition, students interpret the data (e.g., 10 percent of all drivers are African American, but 23 percent of all searched drivers are African American) and form evidence-backed conclusions about racial bias in traffic stops across the nation.

Finally, students again use random sampling on local police data to compare search rates in their county against their national results, bringing the issue even closer to home.

BRINGING SOCIAL JUSTICE AND COMPUTATIONAL THINKING TO YOUR CLASSROOM

Activities tied to issues of social justice can bolster learning in any class, and by approaching these topics with a CT lens, students can more easily draw connections across disciplines. Here are some tips to be successful:

  • Establish a respectful, safe atmosphere in your classroom by allowing yourself to be vulnerable and by ensuring that all students feel heard.
  • Current events are a valuable source of ideas that students will naturally connect with.
  • Consider allowing students to voice what issues matter most to them.
  • Don’t shy away from controversial topics, as these can lead to the richest discussions.
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The Impact of Smartphones on Concentration and Cognitive Abilities

ISM

Vol. 17 No. 9 5/31/18

PSN eletter vol15 no12 smartphone

Smartphones have become an integral part of most people’s everyday routines. Researchers say that Americans check their phones every 12 minutes on average, totaling 80 times each day.

With smartphones infiltrating every aspect of our lives—how does even the presence of a smartphone impact one’s ability to concentrate and use cognitive abilities?

Researchers from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of California at San Diego, and Carnegie Mellon joined forces to find out. They conducted a study with 548 participants, split into three groups. All were asked to complete computerized tests.

The first group was asked to leave their belongings outside the testing room. The second group left most of their belongings outside the room, but were asked to bring their phones in and place them face down on their desks. The third group brought all of their belongings into the room and were told to keep their phones “wherever they ‘naturally’ would.” Most either kept their phones in their pockets or in their bags.

Once the tests were complete, participants were asked if they believed their phones impacted their performance. The majority, 80%, said they did not think their phones impacted them at all.

However, the results showed something different. Participants who left their phones outside the room drastically outperformed those with their phones on their desks, and slightly outperformed those who had their phones in their pockets or bags. The results suggest that “the mere presence of one’s smartphone may reduce available cognitive capacity and impair cognitive functioning, even when consumers are successful at remaining focused on the task at hand.”

As more students own and use smartphones at younger ages, school leaders wonder what policies they should implement regarding use during the school day. The findings from this research present an extremely interesting viewpoint.

Phones appear to have a significant impact on one’s ability to concentrate and use cognitive abilities—even when they aren’t in use. Review your school’s policies for student smartphone usage. Consider whether you’re doing everything you can to promote learning—and remove distractions—during this vital time in your students’ lives.

3 Fun Presentation Tools for End-of-Year Projects

Help students demonstrate classroom knowledge and develop design skills.

April 25, 2018
Emily Major ASSOCIATE MANAGING EDITOR, EDUCATION

Common Sense Media
San Francisco, CA

As the school year winds down, tests and final projects are looming. Class presentations can be a great way for students to synthesize knowledge, practice public speaking, and interact with their classmates. But there are also potential drawbacks: Standing up and speaking in front of peers can be nerve-racking (even for some adults!), and the presentations themselves can become repetitive and formulaic.

Multimedia tools can reduce student anxiety by encouraging a creative approach that not only builds design and tech skills but also can turn an intimidating final assignment into a fun experience. Check out three of our top picks below:


Screencastify screenshotScreencastify

Price: Free; premium version $24/yr.
Platforms: Website
Grades: 3-12

Screencastify is an extension for the Chrome web browser or Chrome devices that records the screen, voice, and more. Students can record what they’re doing on a single browser tab, record all activity on their screen, or add a video insert to include video of themselves using a webcam. While recording, they can use the drawing tool to write directly on the screen or the spotlight tool to highlight certain sections. Screencastify is a great tool for students to demonstrate what they’ve learned, give presentations, and more.

 


Office Sway screenshotOffice Sway

Price: Free
Platforms: iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, Chrome, Apps for Windows
Grades: 6–12

This free, one-stop shop for creating sleek graphics, web stories, and animated videos is incredibly easy to use and challenges students to think critically about visual presentation. Sway integrates with the online Office suite and allows students to share their creations publicly, privately, or to a limited group. Consider using Sway as a digital portfolio tool where students can offer highlights of their written and visual work on the web.

 


Screencastify screenshotAdobe Spark

Price: Free
Platforms: Website
Grades: 8–12

Adobe Spark is a design and media-creation platform that’s easy to use and that offers plenty of inspiring templates to get started. With the tools’ three project types (Posts, Pages, and Videos), students could create collages and graphic images to accompany lessons, web stories to present their research or bring a narrative to life, and videos to argue a position or describe a research project. Adobe Spark offers rich opportunities to demonstrate learning while getting creative with design elements.

With teen mental health deteriorating over five years, there’s a likely culprit

pimchawee

Around 2012, something started going wrong in the lives of teens.

In just the five years between 2010 and 2015, the number of U.S. teens who felt useless and joyless – classic symptoms of depression – surged 33 percent in large national surveys. Teen suicide attempts increased 23 percent. Even more troubling, the number of 13- to 18-year-olds who committed suicide jumped 31 percent.

In a new paper published in Clinical Psychological Science, my colleagues and I found that the increases in depression, suicide attempts and suicide appeared among teens from every background – more privileged and less privileged, across all races and ethnicities and in every region of the country. All told, our analysis found that the generation of teens I call “iGen” – those born after 1995 – is much more likely to experience mental health issues than their millennial predecessors.

What happened so that so many more teens, in such a short period of time, would feel depressed, attempt suicide and commit suicide? After scouring several large surveys of teens for clues, I found that all of the possibilities traced back to a major change in teens’ lives: the sudden ascendance of the smartphone.

All signs point to the screen

Because the years between 2010 to 2015 were a period of steady economic growth and falling unemployment, it’s unlikely that economic malaise was a factor. Income inequality was (and still is) an issue, but it didn’t suddenly appear in the early 2010s: This gap between the rich and poor had been widening for decades. We found that the time teens spent on homework barely budged between 2010 and 2015, effectively ruling out academic pressure as a cause.

However, according to the Pew Research Center, smartphone ownership crossed the 50 percent threshold in late 2012 – right when teen depression and suicide began to increase. By 2015, 73 percent of teens had access to a smartphone.

Not only did smartphone use and depression increase in tandem, but time spent online was linked to mental health issues across two different data sets. We found that teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71 percent more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor (depression, thinking about suicide, making a suicide plan or attempting suicide). Overall, suicide risk factors rose significantly after two or more hours a day of time online.

Of course, it’s possible that instead of time online causing depression, depression causes more time online. But three other studies show that is unlikely (at least, when viewed through social media use).

Two followed people over time, with both studies finding that spending more time on social media led to unhappiness, while unhappiness did not lead to more social media use. A third randomly assigned participants to give up Facebook for a week versus continuing their usual use. Those who avoided Facebook reported feeling less depressed at the end of the week.

The argument that depression might cause people to spend more time online doesn’t also explain why depression increased so suddenly after 2012. Under that scenario, more teens became depressed for an unknown reason and then started buying smartphones, which doesn’t seem too logical.

What’s lost when we’re plugged in

Even if online time doesn’t directly harm mental health, it could still adversely affect it in indirect ways, especially if time online crowds out time for other activities.

For example, while conducting research for my book on iGen, I found that teens now spend much less time interacting with their friends in person. Interacting with people face to face is one of the deepest wellsprings of human happiness; without it, our moods start to suffer and depression often follows. Feeling socially isolated is also one of the major risk factors for suicide. We found that teens who spent more time than average online and less time than average with friends in person were the most likely to be depressed. Since 2012, that’s what has occurred en masse: Teens have spent less time on activities known to benefit mental health (in-person social interaction) and more time on activities that may harm it (time online).

Teens are also sleeping less, and teens who spend more time on their phones are more likely to not be getting enough sleep. Not sleeping enough is a major risk factor for depression, so if smartphones are causing less sleep, that alone could explain why depression and suicide increased so suddenly.

Depression and suicide have many causes: Genetic predisposition, family environments, bullying and trauma can all play a role. Some teens would experience mental health problems no matter what era they lived in.

But some vulnerable teens who would otherwise not have had mental health issues may have slipped into depression due to too much screen time, not enough face-to-face social interaction, inadequate sleep or a combination of all three.

It might be argued that it’s too soon to recommend less screen time, given that the research isn’t completely definitive. However, the downside to limiting screen time – say, to two hours a day or less – is minimal. In contrast, the downside to doing nothing – given the possible consequences of depression and suicide – seems, to me, quite high.

It’s not too early to think about limiting screen time; let’s hope it’s not too late.

Laptops in the Classroom

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

Professors are banning laptops in class, driving college students to revert to handwriting—and to complain about it; ‘a hand cramp in government’

The Wall Street Journal

Handwriting notes in class
Handwriting notes in class PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO

Adam Shlomi says he is a good student at Georgetown University. But the sophomore is failing in one unexpected area: note-taking.

Back in his Florida high school, he brought a Chromebook to class, taking “beautiful, color-coded notes.” So he was shocked to learn many professors at the elite Jesuit university in Washington, D.C., don’t allow laptops in their lecture halls.

I’d Be an ‘A’ Student if I Could Just Read My Notes

With nearly illegible handwriting—a scrawl of overlapping letters with interchangeable t’s and f’s, g’s and y’s—Mr. Shlomi, 20 years old, begs notes from friends, reads textbooks and reviews subjects on YouTube when it’s time to take a test.

As professors take a stand against computers in their classrooms, students who grew up more familiar with keyboards than cursive are struggling to adjust. They are recording classes on cellphones, turning to friends with better penmanship and petitioning schools for a softer line.

Chris Seeley, a senior political-economy major at the University of California, Berkeley, can handle an hour-long class that bans laptops. Ninety minutes gets tough. A two-hour lecture, such as one this semester, is brutal.

Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes
Nearly indecipherable hand-written lecture notes PHOTO: ADAM SHLOMI

“My hand is yelling at me, basically,” he said of the feeling after handwriting final exams.

Mr. Seeley, 22, has established some shorthand, such as writing “nat” for “nation” or “national.” He isn’t always consistent with how he abbreviates, he said, and if he waits more than a few weeks to review the notes, deciphering the terminology can get confusing.

Professors are weary of looking out over a sea of laptops, with students’ faces aglow from who knows what. Are they taking notes? Ordering sneakers on Amazon? Checking out memes?

Some lament that students’ speedy typing lets them transcribe on autopilot, rather than synthesize class information.

“I got really tired of seeing them out there on their laptops and doing something other than pay attention to me,” said Carol Holstead, a University of Kansas associate journalism professor. She banned laptops three years ago from her Visual Storytelling class and now tells students when it is time to pick up their pens and take notes on a particular point.

Students complain professors just don’t understand how hard it is to write by hand.

Students using laptops to take notes
Students using laptops to take notes PHOTO: JEFF PACHOUD/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s hard to know how many college classes have gone laptop-free, as schools generally leave the policies up to professors. Some students can get to graduation logged on in every lecture hall, while others bemoan that the majority of their courses have banned electronic devices.

Laptop bans come as a generation of students who didn’t learn to write in script enters college. Though some public-school districts do require cursive instruction, Common Core education standards that guide many states’ curriculum policies don’t emphasize it.

Many public schools now encourage students to work on computers, some providing devices for them, making it all the more shocking when they enter college.

Faculty members say they make exceptions for students with disabilities, though those concessions are sometimes criticized because they “out” students who otherwise might not publicly disclose issues such as dyslexia or dysgraphia, an inability to write coherently.

University of Connecticut junior Christopher Wojick, 21, who studies landscape architecture, was tempted to lobby his sociology professor for a laptop allowance last year.

“That class was ridiculously hard to take notes in,” he said, recalling the professor’s speedy pace. “I was thinking, ‘Hmm. Do I have a disability?’ I was very close to making something up.”

He thought better of it and stuck to scribbling for the rest of the semester.

Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes.
Isabella Bahner, a sophomore at Oklahoma State University, maintains a complex highlighting system to organize her notes. PHOTO: ISABELLA BAHNER

Isabella Bahner, 19, a sophomore music-education major at Oklahoma State University, is sick of classmates nudging her for notes.

She has an elaborate system: a 12-pack of Sharpie pens and highlighters to organize her text in real-time, each color assigned a meaning. Red is for terms that are relatable or opposites; yellow for new vocabulary; green for people; light blue for dates. Highlight too fast, and the colors blur together.

“I definitely get a hand cramp in government and physical geography,” she said.

Friends know Ms. Bahner has thorough notes, and she’ll help out if they missed a class. But when someone comes calling who was at the lecture and didn’t bother to pick up his pen, she draws the line.

“They’re skipping or being lazy and then trying to bank off the fact that I go” and take good notes, she said.

The Cornell University student government last year unanimously passed a resolution encouraging the faculty to allow “greater freedom of student laptop usage.” Charles Van Loan, an emeritus professor of computer science and faculty dean at Cornell, said there was “zero interest” from the faculty senate in having such a policy for laptop use. “Keyboard noise is not protected under the First Amendment,” he said.

Noah Chovanec, 21, a senior industrial and labor-relations major who co-sponsored the resolution, said he prefers to write by hand, though it’s often disorganized and carries in smudges when he writes fast. “I probably should be pre-med, with my handwriting,” he said. “People have asked for my notes, and I say, ‘OK, I’m going to have to translate for you.’ ”

Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class.
Cornell University senior Noah Chovanec takes notes for multiple classes in a single book. Above, from an American Studies class. PHOTO: NOAH CHOVANEC

Articles by professors instituting bans go viral every few months, often inspiring another set of teachers declaring tech-free zones.

Many of them point to academic studies showing that students taking computer notes retain less than those who handwrite, that multitasking makes people less effective at any single task and that grades can suffer when internet distraction is an option.

Rev. Kevin DeYoung, who teaches at the Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, N.C., had one student drop his class last fall because of a no-laptop policy.

Still, he’s pushing on with his device-free stance. “You’re not trying to be court stenographers,” he said, but rather learning how to identify important information.

This semester, Mr. DeYoung is going a step further in Pastoral Ministry, requiring students to participate in a weeklong digital fast. Afterward, they have to type a paper about the experience.

Mr. DeYoung got pushback from one unexpected source: his father, who works in radio. “He said, ‘You did what? I would never take your class.’ ”

The Future of Coding in Schools

Edutopia

Mitch Resnick, one of the creators of Scratch, on why he thinks coding should be taught in all schools—it’s not the reason you’d expect.

For more than three decades, Mitch Resnick has immersed himself in educational technology and innovative learning models. Now a professor at the MIT Media Lab, and a co-creator of the popular Scratch programming language, Resnick remains a tireless advocate for student-centered education, collaborative learning environments, and the idea that coding is a form of literacy.

His new book, Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play, is a look at our current educational moment. “Roughly two-thirds of grade school students will end up doing work that hasn’t been invented yet,” Resnick contends, hinting at the emerging worlds of artificial intelligence, self-driving cars, and “smart” houses. How do we prepare today’s students to meet that challenge?

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We talked with Resnick about the importance of coding in our school system, his thoughts on the changing roles of teachers, and new ways to engage students—and assess their work.

EDUTOPIA: You moved from journalism—writing about computers and business—to the field of educational technology and learning in the 1980s. What inspired that move?

MITCH RESNICK: The most important shift for me in thinking about computers and learning was actually the spring of 1982, the West Coast Computer Faire—which is like an early form of Maker Faire—and Seymour Papert was giving a keynote address. When I heard Seymour talk, it gave me new vision of what role computers might play in people’s lives: They weren’t just machines to get a job done—they could enable people to express themselves in new ways, and change the way people thought about themselves and thought about the world. That was very exciting to me.

EDUTOPIA: Are we still struggling with Papert’s early insight—almost astonishing at the time—that the computer isn’t just a processor of information but a platform for constructing human knowledge?

RESNICK: Yes I think so, and it mirrors a struggle in the education system that has nothing to do with technology. Many people think of learning and education as a process of delivering information or delivering instruction. Other people see learning and education as student-centered—learning is about exploring, experimenting, creating. Those are very different visions that predate the computer, but of course the computer can fit into either of those two models. It’s a wonderful device for delivering information, but it can also be a wonderful device for creating, exploring, and experimenting.

EDUTOPIA: There are influential people, like Apple CEO Tim Cook, saying, “What we need to do is get coding into every single public school. It needs to be a requirement in public schools across the board.” Is that right?

RESNICK: If it were up to me, I would introduce it. But I want to be careful because I don’t want to embrace it for the same reason that some people might. The first question I would ask is: “Why should we learn coding at all?” Many people embrace coding in schools as a pathway to jobs as computer programmers and computer scientists, and of course they’re right that those opportunities are expanding rapidly. But that’s not a great reason for everyone to learn how to code.

Very few people grow up to be professional writers, but we teach everyone to write because it’s a way of communicating with others—of organizing your thoughts and expressing your ideas. I think the reasons for learning to code are the same as the reasons for learning to write. When we learn to write, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas. And when we learn to code, we are learning how to organize, express, and share ideas in new ways, in a new medium.

EDUTOPIA: What does that look like in the school system? Does coding sit alongside math and reading? Is it integrated in some way?

RESNICK: These days I talk about our approach in terms of these four words that begin with the letter p: projects, passion, peers, and play. So that’s the approach I would take with coding, but also with any other learning: getting students to work on projects, based on their passion, in collaboration with peers, in a playful spirit. And each of those p’s is important. I think work on projects gives you an understanding of the creative process, how to start with just the inkling of an idea and then to build a prototype, share it with people, experiment with it, and continue to modify and improve it.

We know that kids are going to work longer and make deeper connections to the content when they are passionate about the ideas—when they care—and when they’re learning with and being inspired by peers. And I’d want to have kids experience coding in the same way.

EDUTOPIA: You’re describing a high-choice learning environment rooted in student passion and project work. Where’s the teacher in that mix?

RESNICK: The teacher still plays an incredibly important role, but in this approach it’s not so much about delivering instruction. One role the teacher is playing is the role of connector—connecting peers with one another to work together on solving problems. Teachers also act as catalysts by asking provocative questions: “What do you think will happen if…?” or “That surprised me, why do you think that happened?”

They’re consultants, too, and it’s not just about consulting on technical skills, but also about things like how you continue to work on something even when you are frustrated, or suggesting strategies for working with diverse groups of people. Finally, the teacher can be a collaborator, working together with kids on projects—because kids should see teachers as learners too.

EDUTOPIA: It sounds like a more democratic, open system, which seems to imply breaking down a lot of barriers?

RESNICK: I think breaking down barriers is a good way to think about it. When I think about the type of things that I might change in schools—and I know none of it is easy—a lot of it is about breaking down barriers. Break down the barriers between class periods, because 50-minute chunks are too constraining if you want to work on projects. Break down the barriers between disciplines, because meaningful projects almost always cut across disciplines. Break down the barriers between ages and have older kids work with younger kids—both groups benefit. And break down the barriers between inside of school and outside of school—have kids work on projects that are meaningful to their communities and bring people from the communities into the schools to support the teachers.

That’s one way of dealing with the challenge of a single teacher committed to 30 or more kids. It doesn’t have to be that way. Older kids can be helping younger kids, people from the community can be helping.

EDUTOPIA: A fair question—and a common criticism—is: How do you figure out whether kids are learning anything? How do you assess it?

RESNICK: I would take a portfolio-like approach, looking at what kids create. That’s what we do in our Scratch online community. You can see that a kid has created several dozen digital projects, and you can look through their projects and see their progression. For example, you might see the gradual adoption of new strategies—new types of artwork, but also new and improved programming structures.

I acknowledge that it’s difficult to arrive at quantitative measures, but I also think we each don’t necessarily need to. I sometimes make the analogy to the way I’ve been evaluated here at MIT. There are actually no quantitative measures in the process. Basically, they look at my portfolio: They see what I’ve created, they look at the trajectory and the progress over time, and they ask other people’s opinions about it. You’ll sometimes hear, “Well that’s not serious, we need quantitative measures to be serious.” Are they making the claim that MIT is not serious? I understand the criticism that it’s inefficient, but I think those are things we are going to need to deal with.

Again, it’s a big change and I’m not saying it’s easy, but I do think we need to move in that direction.

Teenage Inventor Alexis Lewis Thinks That Kids Have the Solutions to the World’s Problems

Watch This Great Video on Alexis

With a patent to her name and more likely on the way, the 15-year-old has made it her mission to inspire young innovators

SMITHSONIAN.COM

 

Benjamin Franklin invented swim flippers when he was 12 years old. Frank Epperson, age 11, conceived of the popsicle, and 16-year-old George Nissen thought up a trampoline.

Just last year, Kiowa Kavovit, then 6, became the youngest to pitch her invention—a liquid bandage called Boo Boo Goo—on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”

In the United States, there is no age requirement for filing a patent.

Alexis Lewis, a 15-year-old inventor in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, wants children across the country to know that an inventor isn’t something you have to be when you grow up; they can be one now. Lewis holds a patent for a wheeled travois—a triangular load-carrying device with a bamboo frame and a bed of netting that she designed to serve Somali refugees, who need to transport their children many miles to camps and hospitals. Her patent-pending emergency mask pod is a football-shaped canister with protective gear that firefighters and first responders can throw through a window of a smoke-filled building to those trapped inside.

The two-time winner of the ePals-Smithsonian Spark!Lab Invent It Challenge, a competition for young inventors age 5 to 18, is a vocal advocate for “Inventing 101” courses to be a part of middle school curriculums.

Why should more people invent?

I think not only is it important to tell people that they can invent but it’s important also to tell them that they should be [inventing] because they have their own unique perspective on the world. Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen it [the world] slightly differently and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together we can solve a tremendous number of problems.

What motivates you to invent?

My inventions are motivated by one of two things usually. One, it’s a humanitarian issue, basically people who aren’t getting the help they need, people who are dying unnecessarily when they could be saved. Another reason that I often invent is that I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively. Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about the environment you grew up in and how that’s impacted you as an inventor?

My mom would always read to the family about various world issues. When Hurricane Katrina hit [Alexis was 5 years old], we learned all about that—what a hurricane was, how it worked, the effects of Hurricane Katrina itself, what they were doing to help clear out floodwaters, all sorts of fascinating stuff. Being homeschooled, I had a lot of free time in which I was encouraged to basically go and do and build almost anything I wanted. I had access to videos on any subject, so I got to learn about the science of everything, and I read voraciously. I think having those channels of knowledge open to me was completely invaluable.

Do you think you have some advantages as an inventor given the fact that you’ve started young?

I don’t mean to put adults down, but when you’ve grown up and you’ve seen the world for a long time, you think its one way. I’d say that starting young has had an advantage in that I have the ability to look at something and not think, “oh this is a problem that can’t be solved,” but instead think maybe we’ve been looking at it just a little bit wrong. Kids, since they haven’t been told this is something that would never work over and over, have the have the ability to do that.

What is Inventing 101? Where did the idea come from, and why is it important to you?

It’s a class I hope to have administered to middle school students across the country that would basically tell them that they are capable of inventing. It would show them kids who have already invented. If people aren’t told when they’re young that they can invent, it’s going to be much harder to convince them that they can.

I had this idea when I was looking back at the stuff I had done, at my inventions and realizing that these are some simple [designs.] It’s not going to necessarily be the collapsible travois with custom made specially fabricated joints, it’s going to be the simple bamboo one that anybody can make. It’s not necessarily going to be the $700 grenade launcher, it’s going to be a little football-shaped pod that costs all of $4. People are stunned when they hear what I’ve done. But these are things that I know for a fact a lot of people can do. So I thought there’s got to be some way to awaken that self-confidence in people to enable them to do that.

How does your Emergency Mask Pod (EMP) work?

The emergency mask pod is basically a two-part football canister that holds a smoke mask made by Xcaper Industries, a pair of goggles and a little light-emitting device, most likely a LED light strip in the final version. The goggles allow people to concentrate more fully on getting out without having to worry about their eyes burning. The mask gives people the ability to breathe without dealing with the toxic effects of the smoke, and the light strip allows people to more easily locate the pod when it flies into a dark smoky room.

Designing the EMP pod was a process of trial and error. I’m a kid. I like things that go boom and shoot, and so my first thought was let’s just launch it up there. I did a whole bunch of research, and I was looking at a couple of different launcher mechanisms. I had the mascot of a local sports team fire a pneumatic cannon, basically a t-shirt cannon, into an open window from a very close distance, and accuracy was pretty abysmal. I went from a pneumatic cannon, which didn’t work at all, to a couple of so-so throwable devices, and ended up finally with a throwable canister with an accuracy of over 75 percent.

People think that the inventors of the world are the crazy mad scientists and white lab coats working long hours developing crazy new technologies. But that’s not the case. It’s not something reserved for Edison, Graham Bell, all the greats. Inventors are basically anybody and everybody who’s ever tried to solve a problem.