Tiny Inventors, Big Ideas
Learn about the Young Inventors’ projects here.
“Guess what?” asked Texas Medical Center Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy and Operating Officer William F. McKeon to a room full of seven- and eight-year-old students at the British International School of Houston during a classroom visit in late May. “I work inside an old cookie factory.”
The students’ eyes grew wide with disbelief.
“But do you know what’s even cooler?” he went on. The students shook their heads in unison.
“The Texas Medical Center bought the cookie factory, and we made a bunch of renovations, and we turned it into an invention factory.”
This was too much. The Year 3 students, equivalent to second grade in American schools, had been working on their very own inventions for weeks and would soon be traveling to the invention factory—otherwise known as TMCx, the Texas Medical Center’s accelerator program, housed in an old Nabisco factory—to pitch their original ideas to a room full of industry experts, teachers and parents.
Their inventions were part of an eight-week study on innovation, the latest topic in a curriculum designed to foster critical thinking skills and lifelong learning. Following the seven key areas of learning and development set forth by the U.K.’s Early Years Foundation Stage—communication and language; physical development; personal, social and emotional development; literacy; mathematics; understanding the world; and expressive arts and design—the school incorporates the English National Curriculum with the inquiry-based International Primary Curriculum (IPC). Within this model, students are guided through units of study, each lasting between three and eight weeks, and learn to approach a range of topics and issues from various perspectives. Already this year, the classes have studied the rainforest, the history of chocolate, and dinosaurs— an ever-popular topic that culminated in an overnight stay at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.
“All of our classroom activities are linked with various themes covered in the everyday lessons in the IPC, which helps to further consolidate learning,” explained James Frawley, deputy head teacher at the school. “This gives us the flexibility to challenge our students in all areas of development.”
In addition to creating a robust learning environment and the opportunity for nontraditional classroom experiences, the grouping of the English National Curriculum and the IPC provides a well-defined framework for measuring performance without relying on standardized tests—an increasingly controversial evaluation metric. In fact, the Texas Legislature recently passed Senate Bill 149, allowing for alternative methods for satisfying certain public high school graduation requirements—including testing. Effective May of this year, the bill essentially acknowledges that not all student performances can objectively be measured by the current standards, specifically two of the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests.
“In American schools, there is so much testing and teaching to the test—it’s very sad and irritating for the people involved,” said Katharine Forth, whose son is one of the students at the school studying innovation. “This is the other side of the spectrum. The children have a topic across many weeks and the teachers are able to weave their entire curriculum, whether it’s history or culture or math—everything is intertwined with this topic—and they don’t have to break to do any tests. This means the children can really get into their learning for a long period of time, which is necessary for developing deep critical thinking, and ultimately, lifelong learning habits.”
The British International School of Houston’s partnership with TMCx for the students’ study on innovation exemplifies the potential created by this style of learning—and it was facilitated by Forth herself. A former scientist at NASA and the CEO of iShoe, one of the inaugural TMCx startups, Forth first began toiling with the idea after her son came home from school one day excited about his next topic of study: inventions that changed the world.
“It was too perfect,” she said. “You have a school where the children are studying innovation for eight weeks and an innovation center in the city training entrepreneurs and fostering innovation, and I thought, why not pay it forward?”
Both the school and TMCx jumped at the opportunity, and the teachers adjusted the course accordingly.
“It’s completely changed their way of thinking about ideas. And, quite honestly, their way of thinking in general.” — Rosalyn Williamson, Instructor at the British International School of Houston
Students were asked to identify a health-related problem and come up with a solution—an invention—to address it. Working in teams, the curriculum included interviews of older students in the school about their health issues—think broken leg or bloody nose—hour upon hour of brainstorming sessions, and extensive research focusing on materials, mechanisms and competing products on the market. Once their ideas were fully formed, the students sketched their designs and set to work creating prototypes of their inventions.
Forth visited the school weekly to provide guidance throughout the process and address specific topics related to innovation, including how to shape an idea, techniques for effectively communicating a pitch, and the importance of pivoting, or knowing when to shift direction based on practical feedback and unforeseen barriers to success. Other guest lecturers periodically joined Forth at the school to further enrich the students’ learning experience. A group of TMCx business strategists coached the young inventors on presentation strategies, while McKeon’s visit focused on helping the students refine their ideas and pitches.
McKeon began his presentation by recounting his own history of inventions, including a watering device for Christmas trees he created as a young boy and, more recently, a multimillion dollar mobile-connected diabetes management system. He then introduced the concept of patents—and the fact that one of the youngest patent-holders in history was a four-year-old Houstonian—and challenged the students to consider their burgeoning products’ long-term potential and market viability. As he toured the classrooms, McKeon listened to the groups explain their inventions and the ways in which they addressed a particular health problem, asking the types of questions regularly posed by potential investors (What sets your product apart from other similar devices? Would using this material make the device too costly?), and offering constructive feedback concerning their pitches, including the importance of eye contact and a firm handshake.
“Remember, in the end, you are telling a story,” McKeon told one group. “When someone asks you a question about how your product works, you can’t hesitate. You have to say, ‘It works brilliantly and let me tell you three reasons why.’ If you can tell a great story about how your invention is going to make the world better, or people healthier, or a procedure more efficient, then you’re on the road to success.”
McKeon also stressed the importance of teamwork and reminded the students that each individual in a company should be able to speak knowledgeably about their product.
“You’re only as strong as every part of your group,” he explained. “Investors want to see that you’re friendly with each other, that you support each other, and that each one of you adds value to your company or invention.”
This kind of expert-led guidance has proven to be an invaluable learning experience for the students. Not only have they developed a strong understanding of the history of inventions and the invention process itself, they’ve also had the opportunity to experience the process firsthand.
“It’s completely changed their way of thinking about ideas,” said Rosalyn Williamson, one of the teachers. “And, quite honestly, their way of thinking in general.”
Williamson commented that at the beginning of the topic, some students became defensive of their ideas if they were criticized. After working with real-life inventors, however, they were exposed to a more realistic understanding of the expectations and challenges involved in the process and ultimately welcomed constructive criticism.
“At the start, some students found it difficult to change the direction their work was moving in, but now they’re just used to it. Because the process has been so hands-on, it’s made it much more meaningful for them. They’re becoming skilled critical thinkers and are constantly contemplating ways to improve their models or their ideas; they’re self-editing and self-improving, and it’s just incredible for them to acquire these skills at this age.”
Equally incredible is another kind of thinking being nurtured—one that centers on individual potential and equality. The British International School of Houston is comprised of a diverse student body with individuals hailing from 50 different countries, and the students are recognizing that they can change the world through their ideas, regardless of their race, religion, nationality, language or gender.
“It’s really nice to see the girls having an equal say-so in everything, because they’re not aware of the glass ceiling or stereotypes—they’re kids and they’re all equals at the moment,” explained Williamson. “We hope we’re making breakthroughs and changing thinking for the future.”
The course is doing that and more. Not only has the experience promoted open-minded thinkers and lifelong learners, it’s also kindled a specific interest in STEM studies for many of the students—something TMCx strongly supports.
“It’s wonderful to see this formalized in a curriculum,” said McKeon.
“Innovation in the life sciences is what we’re passionate about, and you never see this introduced early enough. These kids are lucky to get this kind of exposure at such a young age.”
“It’s ignited an interest in them that I think is going to follow through for years to come,” said Williamson. “I was listening to my students discuss their invention the other day and one of the girls said, ‘Well, we could use synthetic polymers since they absorb like little sponges,’ and I was amazed at the level of maturity in their newly found vocabulary and understanding of it.”
Bolstering their already peaked interest, TMCx hosted a demo day for the students in June. Headlined as the TMCx Young Inventors Forum 2015, the event provided the students an opportunity to pitch their products to a room full of “potential investors,” including their fellow classmates, teachers, parents, TMCx staff, and a panel of expert judges from institutions throughout the Texas Medical Center.
After welcoming remarks from McKeon and TMC President and CEO Robert C. Robbins, M.D., the 20 groups took turns presenting some impressively clever and polished pitches. Adorned with creative taglines, statistics, and even some original market research (“ten out of 10 children agreed—that’s 100 percent!”), the pitches addressed real issues in health care, among them the inconvenience and discomfort following a broken bone, methods for monitoring dehydration, migraine pain, memory loss from Alzheimer’s disease and how to make the scarier side of medicine more kid-friendly.
Each group had fashioned a prototype of their invention as well as a poster presentation displaying an executive summary, product design specifications and pictures illustrating the various stages of development. After the pitches and showcase presentations were complete, the judges deliberated for a nail-biting 15 minutes, and winners were announced in five categories.
Best Pitch was awarded to Air Crutch, which envisioned the use of repelling magnets on crutches to alleviate the arm pain associated with prolonged crutch usage, as well as the promise that consumers would “float their way to recovery!” Quickest to Market went to the Baby’s Best Friend Mobile Monitor, which employed sensors and a camera to monitor an infant’s health while he or she sleeps. Portable Drip took home the Most Innovative award for their creation of a wearable IV, while the Greatest Impact category went to Ex-Ant, a tiny nanobot ant intended to cure paralysis after successful implantation in a patient’s spine. The Best Prototype category was so competitive that it ultimately resulted in a tie, with the awards going to Write Wrist, a microphone-powered dictation system for individuals who have broken their dominant wrist, and Shot Buddy, a kid-friendly needle-masking system.
After the last trophy was awarded, all of the students were called up to the stage to receive one-of-a-kind TMCx Young Inventors medals to recognize their accomplishments and to “graduate” as inventors themselves. Alongside them were their teachers: Peter Moor, Lyndsey Giles, Audrey McLean and Rosalyn Williamson—each of whom deserved recognition in their own right for their expertise, guidance, enthusiasm and flexibility throughout the course. Because no demo day is complete without a luncheon, TMCx then treated the students and staff to a celebratory, kid-approved feast featuring mac ‘n cheese, pizza, chicken fingers and ice cream sundaes served in color-changing TMCx-branded souvenir cups.
Although most of the inventions had a ways to go before they’d be ready to hit the market, it was evident that the imaginations that built the products were extraordinary, and that within the exhibit hall sat, cross-legged and curious, the future of medicine.
“Watching them, you really get the sense that anything is possible,” said Williamson. “They’re so creative because they are younger and they don’t have the restrictions or con- straints that adults experience in the real world.”
Perhaps the future of medicine won’t be found in the “real” world at all. Perhaps it lies within innocent imaginations, nontraditional learning environ- ments, unending questioning of the status quo and the spark in the eye of a child studying a color-changing cup full of ice cream, thinking.
“Don’t be afraid to dream,” urged Alexander Izaguirre, vice president and chief technology officer for Baylor College of Medicine, who served as one of the panelists for the event. “Don’t let anyone take that away from you, and build the future for all of us, because we’re ready for it.”
Learn about the Young Inventors’ projects here.