RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS: Bringing Invention and an Inventor into the Early Grades
[NOTE: This article appeared in the January 2014 issue of Tech Directions magazine, and is re-printed here with the written permission of the editor. Published monthly August through May, Tech Directions serves teachers and administrators in technology, applied science, and career and technical education.]
by Susan Bermeo and Harry Roman
It started about two months before his actual appearance with enthusiastic students, when inventor Harry Roman was invited to visit the Hillside Grammar School in Montclair, NJ by Mrs. Susan Bermeo, a science specialist there. She was aware of Roman’s work via electronic mail communications with him and a subsequent speech he gave at the nearby Montclair Society of Engineers monthly meeting. Together they planned a visit to the school to address about 100 students [grades 3-5]; and also their parents at an evening science/invention fair.
At the School
Invention day at Hillside was a fun and inspirational day-both for the students and the visiting inventor. Probably one of the most joyous, unscripted, parts of the day occurred when the students welcomed Roman upon his arrival at the school. “Are you the inventor?” they exclaimed. When confirmed, immediately asked for his signature, engaging him with tons of questions about what he had invented. “How awesome!” they remarked, as he mentioned some of his accomplishments. This was just the beginning of their excitement. These were students well-prepared for his visit; enthusiastic about the subject of invention. Roman lectured to two special assemblies of predominantly 4th and 5th grade students who already had a good grounding in science and math.
Prepared to explain how the invention process worked, Roman placed invention in perspective as a natural human process, emphasizing that all humans invent to solve problems; and even though not every invented thing gets patented, it is still an invention none-the-less. Invention is part of the problem solving process. It’s what you do when the solution to a problem requires something very new and not yet available. All this was tied back to a local hero, Thomas Edison, and his nearby legendary labs in West Orange, NJ where some of the students had already visited with their parents. “Invention”, Roman remarked, “is very similar to what engineers do in their daily work world”. Roman also emphasized that invention is a risky business where failure is commonplace, again drawing on Mr. Edison’s classic response to failure….”Fail your way to success”, said the great inventor.
Students nicely grasped the importance of invention as part of the way an economy grows. Patents result in new things, which are made and sold, which creates jobs and revenue for companies and communities. They also appreciated that inventors must be careful their new products do not harm society, the environment, and are safe to use. Invention requires that inventors act responsibly and solve problems in a sound and safe manner. Some of the great questions asked by students centered upon:
- What is a patent?
- What makes inventors obtain patents?
- How long are patents good for?
- Can you sell patents?
- What can be patented?
- What were your toughest problems to solve?
Roman came prepared with some handouts for the students to hold and examine, some artifacts of things he had invented. Such “props” are incredibly valuable for young students so they see that patents have real-world grounding, and are not just some theoretical or abstract thing. As he discussed some of the devices he had invented, Roman illustrated them using the PowerPoint presentation he had prepared for the students. With each of the five inventions that Roman featured, he discussed the kinds of concerns he had to deal with when designing them; and the reasons for pursuing the inventions in the first place. He also discussed the value these inventions had when they were implemented so students could see directly the benefits that invention have on society. This produced a wealth of excitement questions as students eagerly asked questions and started discussions among their local groups. It was rapid-fire give and take!
In the evening, Roman met more students, and their parents. The delightful part of this engagement was to hear parents explain how much their children were interested in science and technology. Many of the parents stopped by Roman’s table with their children, and both asked even more questions. Many parents wanted to know how to keep their children engaged and constantly learning new things. What a joy to hear parents involved, obviously already working with Hillside’s teachers.
Several students even brought along some ideas they had sketched out, so clearly invention went much more than skin deep here. The children were developing ideas on their own, probably before Roman came to the school. Some parents were wondering if such ideas might lead to patents in the future. It is good to know that creativity is alive and well, and school and parents together are supporting it.
Bermeo and Roman are now planning some additional follow-on work for both the science/math teachers at Hillside as well as the students…… possibly involving a grant to conduct a formal invention contest. Teachers would receive some in-service development by Bermeo and Roman that would prepare them for implementing the contest and developing classroom materials and lesson plans.
Susan Bermeo is a science specialist at Hillside School. She has been teaching science in Montclair for over 8 years.
Harry Roman is a retired engineer, inventor, and author. Every month, over 70,000 teachers read his educational articles in national magazines and newsletters.