When Mairi, a third-grader, was asked to solve a health care problem as part of a school assignment, she thought of her grandmother.
Mairi’s grandmother was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a disease affecting the nerve cells that control voluntary muscle movement. Watching her grandmother struggle to communicate made Mairi want to find a way to make her grandmother’s life easier.
So Mairi and three of her third grade classmates at the British International School of Houston—Anaïs, David and Sophie—conceived Eye Help You, a computer that helps ALS patients communicate through eye movements.
The device would include eye-tracking technology that sends information to a caregiver. The third-graders even researched similar products and found that those on the market only used letters. They decided their device would need to have full commands using words and pictures.
Mairi and her team pitched their idea to an audience of supporters at the TMC Young Inventors Forum in June. The product was so innovative that judges gave the team the “Degree of Impact” trophy.
For the past three years, the British International School of Houston and the Texas Medical Center have partnered on the TMC Young Inventors Forum, a six-week program that teaches 7- and 8-year-old students the fundamentals of innovation and basic health care problems. The students work in teams; each team identifies a problem and devises a solution.
To cap off the program each year, the students visit the TMC Innovation Institute, and each team pitches its health care solutions to parents, teachers and a panel of judges made up of community leaders.
“This is exciting because we started this program not just for fun, but because invention and entrepreneurship are skills that should be learned early on in life,” said William McKeon, president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center. “Every child can be a CEO of a company, and every child can have an idea that is a breakthrough.”
This year’s forum also saw some returning students. Eight teams of fifth-graders—the same students who participated in the inaugural Young Inventors Forum—returned to pitch brand-new ideas and showcase an advanced level of entrepreneurship. The fifth-graders added financial information to their products, including cost, profit margins and pricing.
The judges panel included Julia Andrieni, M.D., vice president of population health and primary care at Houston Methodist Hospital and president and CEO of Houston Methodist Physicians’ Alliance for Quality; Karen Bell, consul general of the United Kingdom; Houston City Council members Dwight Boykins and Amanda Edwards; and Bernard Harris, M.D., CEO of Vesalius Ventures.
The way of the future
The curriculum for the TMC Young Inventors Forum was developed by Katharine Forth, Ph.D., CEO of TMCx alumni company iShoe, which creates products that measure and track balance.
As an entrepreneur, Forth feels that every child should have an education around invention and innovation. When her son was a third-grader at the British International School, she created the program.
Forth plans the curriculum with teachers at the school, including Kate Fuller, head of the primary grades.
“We asked the students to come up with a list of problems that have to do with health care and then come up with solutions,” Fuller said. “Of course, we get an abundance of solutions for broken limbs because that is what they know, but we work with them to think deeper.”
The goal is for the children to form teams around a passion for a particular problem, rather than simply work with their friends, Forth said. In order to devise a solution, each team researches their problem and talks to people they know who are affected by it. Then, every team writes an executive summary of their findings, explains how their solution can solve the problem, and designs a pitch.
One of the things Forth looks for is that “certain light in their eye,” which is how she knows a child has caught the “inventing bug.”
“It’s awesome,” Forth said. “You can see that sparkle. That is the magic of this curriculum.”
Every student who participated in the TMC Young Inventors Forum walked away with a medal, a goody bag and a T-shirt, but judges awarded trophies in five categories:
Students came up with the Drive-Me Chair, a self-driving wheelchair that works off of a smartphone.
Degree of Impact
Eye Help You is a computer that would help ALS patients communicate through eye movements.
The Sunshine Cast is a cast that helps absorb vitamin D.
Strength of Pitch
Students devised a Staying Alive T-shirt that shows the proper hand placement for CPR.
Quality of Prototype
The Fluffy Crutch Helper makes crutches softer and more comfortable to use.
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