Mind Over Matter
Addressing educational equity is how America’s lost Einsteins will be found.
By Alana Semuels
When Danny Briere asks kids to draw a picture of what an inventor looks like, they almost always draw the same thing: an old white man who has frizzy hair, a mustache and a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein.
That bothers Briere, Global Director of Invention Convention Worldwide, a nonprofit global consortium that was recently acquired by The Henry Ford to help teach kids around the world how to think like inventors. He knows that with the right mindset, smart kids
from all different backgrounds can be innovative and entrepreneurial but that many kids think the only people who become inventors are old white men.
Worth the Risk
America needs more inventors. For 80 years, the patent office of the United States was the leading place in the world for patent filings. But China surpassed the U.S. in 2011, and today countries including South Korea, Japan and Germany all file more
patents than the U.S., when measured by the size of a country’s economy.
At the same time, the startup rate is declining in the U.S., and small businesses make up a smaller share of the economy than they did in the past. That matters not just for reasons of pride. Economists say that half of the country’s annual economic
growth, which is what helps Americans become richer and improve their standard of living, is attributed to increases in innovation. More than half of the economic growth in the country since the end of World War II, in fact, has been attributable
to technological innovation.
Why aren’t Americans inventing as much as they used to?
Some economists have theorized that the decline in patents may be because U.S. companies are spending less on risky ideas. Others say that the century of innovation that lasted from 1870 to 1970 was an anomaly that will never be replicated.
Raj Chetty has another idea. Chetty, an economist who recently returned to Harvard University after three years at Stanford, runs the nonprofit Opportunity Insights, which uses data on 20 million children and their parents to analyze upward mobility in
America and what factors make children do better than their parents economically. He’s used the data to show definitively that the zip code where a child is raised has a huge effect on the likelihood that that child will go to college and make
a good living and that income inequality has made it harder for children from low-income families to earn more than their parents.
Chetty also used the data to look into who becomes an inventor in America. By linking patent records to income tax records, he and his colleagues found that kids who grow up rich — in the top 1 percent of the income distribution — are 10 times
as likely to become inventors as those born to families with below-median incomes. Kids who grow up around innovators, or who have personal relationships with innovators, are also much more likely to become inventors themselves than those who don’t.
Exposing kids to innovators, Chetty and his team hypothesized, could go a long way toward finding these “lost Einsteins” and helping them pursue their interests in innovation. “There are lots of kids from low-income backgrounds, women
and minorities, who seem like they would have very high ability to produce really impactful innovations but are not going through the pipeline,” Chetty said.
Kelly Reynolds knows how difficult it can be to become an inventor without the right connections. Reynolds grew up in Brooklyn, raised by a single dad who was a transit conductor. When she was working as a single mom in New York City, she came up with
an invention: an electronic device mount for a stroller so that her daughter could watch children’s shows on the subway without constantly dropping the tablet. Reynolds applied for a patent and tried to get funders, but she found she didn’t
have the contacts she needed to raise money to start manufacturing the product or selling it. She had to focus on saving money, not spending it on an invention that might not go anywhere, and she didn’t have any family members who could help
“People who come from low- or middle-income families, we’re limited,” said Reynolds. “If your daughter says, ‘I have an invention,’ they say, ‘We have to pay rent.’”
Lost & Found
There are groups across the country trying to change this dynamic and help different types of people pursue inventions and innovation. A company called Pioneer, for instance, recently launched a website that calls for good projects that don’t have
to be fully formed inventions or companies.
Every month, the community of applicants will vote on ideas that have been submitted, and Pioneer will give a $5,000 grant to the person with the best idea and then fly that person to San Francisco to receive mentorship from experts in their field.
Pioneer is “an attempt to find the most brilliant people in the world, wherever they are, and to identify cheap and scalable interventions that might help them achieve their goals,” founder Daniel Gross wrote in a blog post announcing the
effort, which also referenced Chetty’s work.
Similarly, StreetCode Academy, a San Francisco Bay Area nonprofit, has launched a campaign, Who’s Next, which also seeks to find “lost Einsteins” by exposing local kids to technology and mentorship networks.c
More broadly, people like Briere are trying to get school systems to implement invention education, in which students are taught to think creatively about how to identify and then solve problems around them.
Previously, teachers had focused on steering kids to STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — or educating them on how to become entrepreneurs. But as computers learn how to do more and more jobs in STEM fields, Briere said
more school districts and teachers are seeing the importance of invention education and how it can impact the inventive and entrepreneurial workforce of tomorrow. Invention education isn’t just teaching kids science or technology facts or how
to sell products — it’s about teaching them how to identify problems on their own and think creatively for a lifetime.
Schools can teach invention in any number of ways, offered Briere: A teacher going over the history of the cotton gin, for example, could launch a seven-week program that encourages kids to invent something useful in their lives. They could use tools
like Model I, a new learning platform created by The Henry Ford that teaches about the habits and actions of innovators using its collections and stories of innovation as a foundation.
Briere hopes the U.S. government will someday follow the model of South Korea, which mandated that every child get an invention education. Interest in the U.S. is already growing, he said.
In 2016, STEMIE began holding an annual national invention convention in which kids across the country enter inventions and compete on their merits. Each year, more and more children are getting involved. In 2018, 108,000 inventions were judged across
the country, with the top contenders journeying to The Henry Ford for the first time for the final competition. Now, Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation is the event’s permanent home, and The STEMIE Coalition, now called Invention Convention Worldwide, has been acquired by The Henry
Ford. Together, the two organizations’ goal is to see 10 million American kids learn how to be innovative, inventive and entrepreneurial.
Some invention convention submitters have already garnered national attention, such as the girl who proposed an idea for bulletproof school walls and the 13-year-old who created a lollipop that cures hiccups. Even if the inventions themselves don’t
make it to the marketplace, Briere noted the fact that if more school districts are teaching kids that they, too, can be inventors, it is going to help create change in the way innovation is perceived in America. Even giving students the confidence
to know that they can be inventors has the potential to completely change their career trajectory.
After students go through the Invention Convention curriculum, Briere said, he asks them again to draw a picture of a typical inventor. This time, they draw themselves.
The Innovation Project
No innovator left behind. No entrepreneur excluded. The Henry Ford is working continually to remove barriers to accessing its content, making its experiences, artifacts and learning environments available to everyone — especially those who traditionally
have been left behind.
The Henry Ford’s Youth Mentorship Program, for example, has been offering at-risk teens the opportunity to develop life and work skills on-site at The Henry Ford for nearly three decades. The Henry Ford’s Community Outreach Program —
which makes the institution’s collections and educational experiences more accessible to resource-challenged families, at-risk youth, kids fighting cancer and victims of violence — has been working with local organizations for a dozen
years. More recently, The Henry Ford has implemented highly successful sensory-friendly programming and tactile tours, making its campus accessible to even more individuals and families.
The Henry Ford still wants to do more and will do more as part of its multimillion-dollar comprehensive campaign called The Innovation Project, where plans already exist to create new accessible environments on campus, expand existing programs to be more
accessible and relevant to a broader audience, and renovate facilities to accommodate individuals with a range of abilities as well as their family members and companions. The campaign’s core learning
initiatives also have the potential to help The Henry Ford equip educators and learners with the real-world skills they need to narrow the talent gap and nurture the future talent pipeline.
For details on programs and initiatives comprising The Henry Ford’s The Innovation Project, go to theinnovationproject.org.