Teaching Thomas Edison in the Classroom: The Ultimate Gifted Education STEM Adventure

Published in the Journal of the Illinois Association for Gifted Children [IAGC], March, 2017. This article is reproduced with the consent of the Editor of the IAGC Journal, a nationally recognized forum for the education of gifted children and related issues. More can be learned about this organization at www.iagcgifted.org.

By Harry T. Roman
Author, Educator, Inventor, Retired Engineer

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others … I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent” -Thomas Edison

If you are teaching STEM, you are teaching about how Thomas Edison changed the world with his codification of the invention process-soon to be named the invention factory. Later it became known as the commercial R&D lab; and so useful was this concept that every major company [what we today call the Fortune 500 companies] created their own R&D labs—all of which was done before Edison’s death in 1931. Beside his other great inventions like the phonograph, light bulb/electric utility system, motion pictures, and nickel-iron storage batteries…the invention of R&D labs stands out as the an incredible process that keeps the industrial revolution of the 1880s vibrant and alive to this day. It is the very centerpiece of what we refer to as technology driven growth— the very foundation of what we mean when we say “progress”. General Electric Company, an inspiration of Thomas A. Edison, later adopted a most apropos tagline in the 1950s …”Progress is our most important product.” Keep in mind that 70% of the annual economic growth of our nation is driven by advances in technology.

So closely allied is Edison’s R&D labs with what we teach today under the STEM taxonomy, that I playfully refer to Edison as the “STEM-meister”. Edison and his invention factory concept was all about interdisciplinary, team-based, head and hands, new product development….way back in 1876. When your gifted students grow-up and graduate, they will be working for companies doing exactly what Edison did with his teams of inventors over 125-years ago. Edison is as relevant today as he was back at his legendary West Orange, NJ Labs.

In this paper I hope to demonstrate ways in which you can use the STEM-Edison duality to help prepare your G&T charges for an unforgiving, globally competitive world? For not only is STEM a powerful way to integrate the curriculum, and improve problem-solving, but it is also a superb school-to-work paradigm. Here below is a detailed identification of the value of STEM for the gifted classroom.

Working in STEM team settings promotes:

  • Combining process and content
  • Integration of the curriculum
  • Solving problems in an inter-disciplinary and multi-dimensional manner
  • More complete solutions, higher quality solutions, to meaningful problems.
  • Better overall problem-solving skills
  • Increased student confidence and self-esteem
  • Mastery of a life-long method/process for solving any kind of problem
  • Planning, researching, organizing, and executing project activities
  • Learning how to ask meaningful questions and draw conclusions
  • Evaluating problems from multiple viewpoints-360 degree problem solving
  • Better understanding of collaboration among students
  • Engendering potential multiple solutions/selecting the best solution
  • Ownership and leadership of the problems being addressed
  • Creativity and new idea generation
  • Improved written and oral presentation skills
  • Reductions in “math-o-phobia”
  • Diversity in thinking and ideas
  • Respect for others and their thoughts
  • Self-actualization and leadership
  • A drive for self-learning
  • Relevance in the classroom

“I always invented to obtain money to go on inventing.” -Thomas Edison

The Meat and Potatoes of the Matter
As Edison forged his invention factory concept at Menlo Park and perfected it at West Orange, he employed experts in teams, members of which possessed the multi-disciplinary skills needed to develop specific new products. These experts were chosen because of their ability to solve problems from a multi-dimensional perspective; able to see the various important aspects of the problem; and reach a mediated solution that was both practical and economic. They were designing within socio-economic constraints. Or as I like to say to young G&T teachers -solve the problem from a 360 degree perspective, not just the science, technology, engineering and math … take into account the environmental, social, regulatory, legal, and cultural aspects of the problem. Envision the problem solved from the perspective of the user of the new product or service you are designing, and how it will be used in their world.

The invention process you encounter in STEM literature is basically the one Edison used to codify the invention process in his invention factory. Here he managed maybe 30-40 project teams at once-all of whom were working on individual new products, or perhaps revising existing products and improving them. As a quick refresher, below are the steps to this iterative, and deeply inquisitive invention process:

1) Identify a problem worth solving
2) Evaluate the economics/market needs
3) Identify constraints, impacts, challenges
4) Identify/test potential solutions-invent!
5) Validate invention against 1), 2) and 3)
[repeat 1) thru 5) as necessary-re-design/re-evaluate original problem]
6) Market the invention
7) Grow and improve the invention

Challenge your gifted students as often as possible to work in teams, using this process as a fundamental guideline; and empower them to ask questions. The quality of solutions is dependent upon the quality of the questions asked. Teach them how to ask tough questions! Let your students be like “hard boiled” detectives when they have problems to solve-get in there and turn every problem inside-out, learning as much as possible about the problem and how proposed solutions could be used. Sanction and champion your gifted students to always ask questions-be relentless about this.

Study other great inventors throughout history [and maybe within your own state as well]. How did they solve tough problems? Were their approaches to problem solving similar? What characterized these inventors-their behaviors and distinguishing traits?

“Hell, there are no rules here – we’re trying to accomplish something.” -Thomas Edison

Take the time to teach your gifted students how the economy works, for our modern understanding of how potential new products are envisioned and brought to market derives directly from what Edison taught us at Menlo Park/West Orange. At West Orange, he puts his invention factory on steroids with about 250 technical experts and craftsmen developing prototypes for new/improved products. Then he had over 10,000 workers in surrounding buildings making the new products and shipping them around the world. All this occurred on about 23 acres of land. His company, Thomas A. Edison Industries, was the Silicon Valley of its time, composed of about 30 separate businesses. Before he died in 1931, most of the great companies of that time duplicated his invention factory in their own business models. Today we know these corporate entities as R&D departments.

Edison sets in stone for us our modern conception of team based, technology driven, economic growth; or what we euphemistically refer to as progress. General Electric of the 1950s had this wonderful corporate tag line they used ubiquitously…..”Progress is our most important product”….precisely summing up the power of the innovation process.

By studying how the economy works, students will gain a powerful insight about how STEM-based academic pursuits are a direct link to economic growth; and technology driven growth is a force for good in the world, helping to raise the standards of living for everyone. Think of all this as a school-to-work paradigm.

Listen to what Edison himself said:

“I never perfected an invention that I did not think about in terms of the service it might give others … I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent …”

“The dove is my emblem … I want to save and advance human life, not destroy it … I am proud of the fact that I have never invented weapons to kill …”

To drive this economic growth angle home, consider…

Edison has been dead since 1931. His accomplishments can be traced to directly contributing about 10% of the U.S. economy today-something in excess of $1.6 trillion annually. Recently, experts have suggested his work is responsible for one-fourth of all jobs on the planet-about 775,000,000 jobs worldwide! There is a reason he is known as the Man of the Millennium.

Edison understood how the economy worked. He had to- otherwise his inventions and innovations would never have had the impact described above, or be so used during his time. He had to meet a payroll regularly for his 10,000 employees. Profits come after all the costs, including payroll are met; and profits are what makes new jobs and new products possible.

Have your class discover what other inventors have done to impact the world’s economy. What about Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak? How about other classic entrepreneurs/inventors like Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone? Inventors don’t invent because they can, but because there is economic incentive to do so. Give this serious time in your academic day. Look at the many sectors of the economy where growth is technologically driven and study inventors and their links to the economy. [Hint: 70% of the annual growth of our economy is technology driven!]

“To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” -Thomas Edison

The Invention Notebook
One of the great lessons one can accrue from studying Thomas Edison is his persistent keeping of notes and records of many experiments and inventions. Over his lifetime he produced about 4,000 notebooks detailing his work in text, mathematical formulations, and pictorial formats—-forming the basis for his 1093 patents. Think of the great benefits teaching gifted students to keep meticulous records….a kind of scientific diary, similar to a scientist’s laboratory notebook. Let’s examine the benefits for your gifted students.

Say your students form teams to develop ideas into possible inventions. By carefully recording their work in a chronological fashion, they benefit by:

  • Developing the important discipline of working toward a solution-the commitment over time of achieving the goal of a new invention/product; and commitment to the team…something highly valued in the business world.
  • Gaining special insights of the invention as it changes and morphs over time, which can produce some very interesting options later—empowering them
    to continually seek answers to well-asked questions.
  • Regularly practicing concise descriptive writing [G&T teachers: take no prisoners here … make students write, write, write]
  • Expressing their ideas in a graphic, pictorial manner-another way to explain their concepts…use graphs, charts, tables of data, experimental results
    and record these in the notebook—fusing intellectual and graphical portrayal of information
  • Gain appreciation of how math is used to explain their ideas and quantify it’s impact [G&T teachers: math is the coin of the realm in the work-a day
    world … make students use math in all aspects of their invention’s design and evaluation.]
  • Blend together in their writings the input of the entire team-all team members should sign each entry to make sure they have read and understood the entry.
  • Preparing students for the workplace, where organizing and managing projects is a top priority—corporate positions which pay exceptionally well.

It is vital that any invention notebook also document the thinking of the team. Insist that all invention notebooks also address:

  • What is the marketing aspects of the invention-why is it needed, who will buy it, what is its potential in sales … etc.
  • What could be a logical selling price for the invention/product.
  • How will this new technology impact the world and society
  • Does it have a potential impact on the environment, and how will this be minimized
  • What about the safety of the invention/product
  • Does it need to meet regulatory statutes
  • Will there cultural/religious impacts with selling the invention/product overseas
  • What legal implications might arise?

Everyone on a team has a chance to participate in the project and provide input to the team’s invention notebook. Most of all, this close interaction and verbalization of the problem, as exemplified by the descriptions of the group’s progress in the notebook, will help students get comfortable with working with people. In the work world, everyone works in teams; and invention notebooks are legal documents, proving ownership or the right to assign intellectual property to people and companies- i.e. patent rights. These rights can result in hundreds of millions of dollars in sales over the life of the new product or problem solution. G&T students need to understand how fundamental the documentation of ideas and inventions are to our economy.

Try this out with your class. Have gifted students design an invention notebook format that all teams can use. Research the literature and sample notebook formats, urging your students to implement a format for all teams to use.

“To have a great idea, have a lot of them.” -Thomas Edison

Celebrating Thomas Edison
Consider these activities as a way to celebrate the joy of Thomas Edison in your G&T classroom. These suggested activities are not ranked or prioritized. Here we go….

Host an invention contest
Divide your students into 3 person teams and let them propose solutions to problems with a common theme like applications for solar energy, electric vehicles, new energy sources…etc. As a way to evaluate the creativity and innovation of the teams on a common basis, use the method of invention notebooks discussed earlier. Once the teams have presented their results, have students from outside the classroom select the inventions they like best. An alternate invention challenge might focus on solving problems that already exist within the school, making it more personal to the teams and the evaluators.

Host a website/newsletter
What a great way to promote and practice communications! Have your gifted kids develop a website accessible to the entire school, and perhaps other schools within your district. Students can write articles about how Edison changed the world, and influencing us yet today. All things Edison can be explored and discussed, along with publicly available photos of the great inventor and his work.

Invite inventors into the G&T classroom
Enjoy the company of modern day inventors and they explain how they use creativity techniques to develop solutions to problems. Either singly or in a panel discussion setting, allow your students to learn first-hand from men and women who invent as a living or as a vital part of their jobs as engineers, technologists, scientists…etc. [G&T teachers: before the actual encounter, prep your students about asking questions, maintaining a proper demeanor and decorum.] Consider writing articles about the meeting with inventors and publish them on the website mentioned above.

Identify What Makes G&T Students Creative
Engage the entire gifted class in identifying what makes each student feel creative. Over the course of perhaps a week, allow each student to think about what makes them feel creative—from time of day, mood, atmosphere, to relaxed state of mind, to whatever they feel is a major facilitator of creativity. Let the students tell their story. Then ask them (working in teams) to think about and redefine how school can be changed to allow for maximizing creativity. Should the school day be flipped with students learning at home and applying it during the school day? Should courses be taught in clusters, like math, science, art, and music? What else do your G&T students think?

Which was Edison’s Greatest Invention?
Study the many inventions created by Edison, fostering a debate about the pros and cons of his introduced technologies. How did his technologies impact the:

  • Economy
  • Society
  • Environment
  • Progress

Make sure your students marshal their arguments as quantitatively as possible.

Introducing New Technologies
Imagine you and your students are there when Edison launches his new electric lights, and folks are installing electricity in their homes. Have your G&T class debate pro and con about this new technology that is replacing existing forms of illumination like fuel oil lamps, manufactured gas, and candles. What did the new technology offer that supplanted the old existing technology? What are your class’s perception today of times past? Could the perceptions your students arrive at be similar to those being voiced today with emerging technologies like solar energy, electric vehicles, and hand-held devices?

“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that. I wish I had more years left.” -Thomas Edison

The First Electronic Patent
Edison files the first electronic patent after discovering what would become known as the Edison Effect. This work later leads to the production of vacuum tubes, radio and television. What follows after all that? Use a timeline to depict the advances that today give us hand-held devices. This is a wonderful example of how 125 years of innovation can morph an original invention into something else. By the way, what Edison invention gave birth to vacuum tubes?

Document Edison’s Great Discoveries
Between 1876 and 1889, 13 years, Edison makes his great discoveries that enable new products and whole new industries. What were these, and how did they change the world?

Edison in your Hand
Examine how Edison’s work is inside a modern hand-held device like a cell phone or tablet. How can your G&T students realize and identify Edison’s presence?

A Unifying Theme
Edison’s greatest inventions involved telegraphy, telephony, recorded sound, motion pictures, electric utility systems and lighting, and R&D labs. How are most of these related? [Hint: Edison was profoundly hearing challenged.]

Tips from Edison’s Mother
Down through the years, the wisdom of Edison’s mother still rings true to us today. Here are simple truisms she urged young Tom to keep uppermost in his mind. She home-schooled him as the local one-room schoolhouse could not make an impression upon him. Tom was thinking at a whole deferent level, far beyond the rote learning and traditional manner education was dispensed in the mid-1800s. Fortunately, Mrs. Edison was a formally education school teachers, but was not practicing at the time, busy with raising her family. Here are four maxims she imbued to Thomas:

Do not be afraid to fail. Keep trying, learn from failure; and try again. This comes to be known as “fail your way to success”…something you as a G&T teacher should always be mindful of. Empower young minds to look at the world as an intellectual challenge-often composed of iterative cycles that improve solutions or even the development of new products. Empower them to fail and not be ashamed or overwhelmed by it. That is why erasers are on the backs of pencils!
Give them the freedom to fail.

It is OK to work with your hands and your head. Not everything important comes from books. Experience the world and learn from it. There is a world beyond the classroom that is brimming with learning opportunities. Take advantage of all this information and knowledge-just as valid as what a teacher or a book my teach you.

Read across the entire span of literature, not just what you liked. Reading and studying literature brings new ideas into your mind acting as a catalyst for mental stimulation. Throughout his life, Edison read and memorized poetry, prose and literature. This made him a great communicator, able to draw on the great lessons of written culture and history. One of his great heroes was Thomas Paine and his writings of the Revolutionary War.

Never stop learning, keep improving yourself. This can be seen in the great Edison library and office from which he ran his legendary West Orange Labs. Probably 10,000-20,000 volumes were there at his fingertips to support his enormous appetite for information and knowledge. He knew to lag behind in his constant quest to learn meant competitors would soon catch up. He may have been the first great corporate innovator to consider retaining a corporate library for he and his staff to use.

All this serves to emphasize the maxim of Edison as the STEM-meister as discussed earlier. Work with your G&T students to make the connections back to STEM.

The Summing Up
I shall close with a quote from John P. Keegan, President of the Edison Innovation Foundation, where I am privileged to serve as their author and educational consultant. The Edison philosophy can be distilled down to four basic concepts:

  • Think out-of-the-box
  • Be entrepreneurial-take risks
  • Fail your way to success
  • Success demands that you improve your products.


Check out these websites for great additional “Edisonia” and classroom projects and activities. I populate these websites for the Edison Innovation Foundation; and there are links to other social media about Edison mentioned here as well:

Also check out the website for the Thomas Edison National Historical Site [TENHP]-where his West Orange Labs are intact and may be visited-the most complete technological museum on the planet. About 50,000-70,000 visitors tour the site and his nearby historic home and garage every year, with about 25-30% of that visitation attributable to teachers and students.


HARRY T. ROMAN is a retired engineer, teacher, inventor, and author. He has published over 550 articles, papers and scientific treatises, along with 75 teacher resource products including books, math card games, and science kits. A recipient of multiple awards for his outstanding service as an educator, as well as his pioneering technological achievements and inventions, Roman is currently an educational advisor for the Edison Innovation Foundation, and often visits local schools to work with teachers and students.