May 22, 2023

When Learning is Irresistible: An Invitation to Foster Inventive Mindsets

Categories: Connected Learning, Digital Learning, Educational Practice, Featured, New Trends, Research
Image: Portland State University, Oregon MESA


In 2019 I stumbled upon the field of invention education when I joined a Lemelson-MIT (LMIT) research project examining how high school teams were using computer science to create technological solutions that would improve the lives of others. As part of the research, I attended EurekaFest, where I met high school student teams and their teacher advisors from across the country who had been awarded one-year LMIT grants to build working prototypes solving real-world problems in their everyday lives.

The space was abuzz with excitement as teams showcased their prototypes – from enabling fresh food production and improving firefighter safety to a more sobering prototype designed to isolate the location of active shooters in a school building. I heard stories of students who struggled with traditional academics, but excelled once they joined the school invention team, and how students on the same team who were from different social groups respected and cheered for one another. In 2022, these high school teams shared prototypes that included monitoring systems for climate change, a child drowning prevention device, portable wildfire shelter, pedestrian safety devices, and a fitness device for individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Students and teacher advisors alike discussed how invention education engaged them in ways of learning and teaching that enabled students to learn new things, build critical thinking skills, contribute, and thrive. And when students are invested in their own learning, teachers are able to focus on being facilitators of learning. 

Teacher advisors also shared how participating on these teams has increased significant interest in STEM careers, particularly from girls. “EurekaFest demonstrates the power of invention education to change the way students see themselves, engage in the community and think about their futures,” notes Stephanie Couch, executive director for LMIT. “InvenTeam participants are over 40 percent female and many InvenTeam students have gone on to pursue STEM degrees and career paths that have put them well on their way to becoming the change agents of the future.”


What is invention education? 

Invention education offers young people opportunities to develop ways of thinking, capabilities, and dispositions to problem solving identified as attributes of inventors. It is a pedagogical approach that integrates the process of invention into teaching and learning, draws conceptual knowledge from multiple disciplines, and focuses on problem identification through empathy and collaborative problem solving resulting in novel solutions. Although research is still limited, the design and implementation of programs are often guided by related research from other fields such as design thinking, systems thinking, maker education, computer science education and computational thinking, project-based learning, and entrepreneurship.

Whether programs are designed to support individual inventors or teams, students have agency to choose the problems to solve, and draw upon knowledge in various disciplines as well as their lived experiences to develop real solutions. This approach activates deep engagement and learning, and engenders connections to the students’ community. Over the past couple of decades, invention education has become an emerging field of practice in K-12 and higher education, and has been supported by funders such as The Lemelson Foundation, who have funded invention education initiatives including the LMIT program and a growing network of  K-12 educators, nonprofit leaders, researchers, government agencies, funders, and others who share the goal of furthering the practices, research, and policies of invention education.


Connected Learning

Regardless of projects, geography, community, student, or teacher advisor, student interests are ignited when they participate in invention education. They eagerly learn to collaborate with a diverse group of peers to create products that matter to them and benefit their communities. Knowing the tenets of connected learning, it is clear to me that invention education embodies the research based elements of connected learning that include:

  • Learning – learning is motivating when it grows out of personal interest.
  • Opportunities – learners need support from peers and mentors to persist through setbacks and challenges.
  • Relationships – success beyond the classroom requires tangible connections to real-world career and civic opportunities.‘
Image credit: Nat Soti. Initially appeared in the CLA report “The Connected Learning Research Network: Reflections on a Decade of Engaged Scholarship” (2020).

Similar to the invention education field, educators have been putting connected learning into practice through a wide range of networks and organizations, in both formal and informal environments. As a consummate connector of people and projects that can learn from and elevate one another, it seems that the two communities of invention education and connected learning have a lot in common, and could benefit at the very least from a meet and greet.


Teaching, Learning, and Tech

As I discovered more stories of young people inventing solutions for real problems that reflected their cultural identities, interests, and communities, it became clear that the invention education learning approach is an instantiation of culturally responsive education resulting in a relevant, tangible, and often patentable product. Moreover, it embodies the values of connected learning, which emerged from the Connected Learning Research Network and related initiatives.

At New America, we are exploring how schools, libraries, and other learning spaces are using technology to expand access, enhance digital literacy, and create and adopt more equitable and inclusive instructional practices and curricular materials. We have been researching and examining inclusive teaching and learning practices to understand the barriers and opportunities to accessing and using culturally responsive education for all young people.

What we know is that culturally responsive education involves connecting academics to students’ daily lives, cultural backgrounds, and concerns in ways that support engagement, achievement, and empowerment. When materials are high quality and teaching is done well, students learn about language, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and cross-cultural knowledge; and build identity when they learn about societal expectations of themselves and others. Outcomes include enhancing student engagement, improving academic achievement, supporting learning a variety of subjects, and influencing career interests.

More recently, we embarked on understanding what it means to design educational technologies that enable full access to high-quality teaching and learning for learners with disabilities. We are connecting with accessibility-and design-minded organizations, researchers, policymakers, edtech companies, schools, learners, parents and educators to learn how edtech can be accessibly designed and developed from the beginning, thereby supporting transformative learning experiences empowered through technology for all learners. I look forward to engaging invention education and connected learning colleagues to ensure what we create embodies the tenets of connected learning and the pedagogy of invention education.

In the meantime, I invite the connected learning community to explore the world of invention education.

Guest post by An-Me Chung

GWBPC PLS, Mt. Vernon, VA. Photo by Grant Miller

An-Me Chung is the Director of Teaching, Learning, and Tech and Strategic Advisor to the Education Policy Program at New America. She has extensive experience building networks and spearheading public-private partnerships and alliances with CEOs, senior government leaders, philanthropists, researchers, technologists, policymakers, and community leaders and practitioners to bring equitable education and technology opportunities  to all young people. She is co-founder of build4good, a matching and mentoring summer internship program for post-secondary students and nonprofit organizations that aims to inspire a network of future leaders to develop socially minded technology.

An-Me has led the Dr. Seuss Foundation, Knowledge Alliance, Amplifier, and Digital Harbor Foundation through organizational development and strategic planning. She spearheaded development of equitable computer science education ecosystems as a CSforALL fellow. She forged partnerships and led the development of core curriculum and global digital literacy and 21st century skills standards and credentials at the Mozilla Foundation. She managed initiatives at the MacArthur Foundation designed to improve student learning in digital media through partnerships with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. In leading the education grantmaking at the C. S. Mott Foundation, she partnered with the U.S. Department of Education through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to build the afterschool field. She directed the Save the Children Out-of-School Time Rural Initiative while at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

She completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Columbia University and holds a PhD from Yale University, a BS from Washington University in St. Louis. An-Me is a Presidential Leadership Scholar and alumni advisor, a program convened by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to bring together leaders who share a commitment to help solve society’s greatest challenges.

Board service: Illinois Community College Board, Framework Institute, InventED Advisory Group, Starfish Institute Advisory Board, Bridgebuilder Cinematic Arts Programs, Midwest Chinese Family Camp, Nomi Network, Asian Giving Circle.