Inventing the Future: An Interview with Josh Schuler, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lemelson-MIT Program

Article excerpt

THE LEMELSON-MIT PROGRAM WORKS TO FOSTER INVENTION by inspiring and encouraging great inventors through various outreach programs such as Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams. This program, a non-competitive team-based national grants initiative for high school students, is a prestigious awards program that includes the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. Students have invented potential breakthrough technologies ranging from robotic coconut tree climbers to wind-sensing balloons. The Association for Career and Technical Education recently interviewed Josh Schuler, executive director of the program.

ACTE: What is the Lemelson-MIT Program?

JS: The Lemelson-MIT Program is a nonprofit organization based in the MIT School of Engineering. Our goal is to recognize outstanding inventors, encourage sustainable new solutions to real-world problems and enable and inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. And we actually do this through our awards program. We give out an annual prize called the Lemelson-MIT prize. We also give out the Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability and the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. In addition to those awards we have a grants initiative called InvenTeams.

ACTE: Tell me more about the InvenTeams program.

JS: The InvenTeams initiative was launched during the 2002-2003 school year with three schools in New England. Since then it has grown significantly. We went national in 2003-2004, with 10 teams, and this year there are 16 teams representing 14 states. In addition to these new grant recipients each year we work with previous recipients; there are about 62 in our network now. And most of these schools are active and participating in invention projects to different extents. Some have formed invention clubs, developed curriculum, or have some sort of programs related to invention. InvenTeams asks teams composed of students, teachers and industry mentors to identify a problem that they want to address with an invention, and then we provide funding, support and a structure to develop a prototype. What's great about InvenTeams is it calls for a diverse skill set; it's not just about science, technology, engineering and math but also communications, marketing, finance and project management. It's about developing 21st century skills.

ACTE: Once the team gets the grant, is there a necessity for participants to follow through and produce the product?

JS: Well they promise to make a prototype for something, and we certainly require them to come up with a workable prototype within the eight-month period.

ACTE: What kinds of projects do InvenTeams work on?

JS: The projects are entirely up to the students, so we've found that they really run the gamut. They do tend to fall into a few categories, and I'll run through those and give you a few fun examples. We had a team a few years ago develop a watermelon ripeness evaluator. It used some really hard core technology--there was some great math and some great science behind it. Assisted devices are also quite popular. We had an omnidirectional wheelchair device and we had a barcode-to-voice device. And as I'm going through these project names you're thinking, "Where did the students come up with these ideas?" Well, they come up with them because they're problems that either affect them personally or affect someone they know. The watermelon ripeness evaluator was from a student who worked in a food store and sort of got sick of people asking him, "Hey, is this watermelon ripe? …