The dominating narrative about engineering is that it’s for people who are good at math and that it’s all about robots and cars. Super intriguing for some, but not the full story.
Engineering can also be about solving real problems and making a difference. We need both representations of what engineering is to reach all audiences.
With this idea in mind, I built Project Invent. Project Invent is a high school program where students design technologies that make a difference. Students spend the year identifying a problem in their community and building a technology to solve it, ultimately presenting their work to top leaders in Silicon Valley. Throughout this process, we teach students 21st century skills like engineering, creative problem solving, and leadership in the context of making a social impact. From smart wallets to help the blind detect bill denominations to steering wheel attachments to prevent drowsy driving, students create technologies that change the world.
By providing impact as a reason to create, we also reach a whole new demographic of innovators. Students initially resistant to engineering become drawn to the idea of making a real impact. One previous student, Polina, came into the space for the first time as a senior. She didn’t see herself as a maker and saw no interest in traditional offerings like robotics and 3D printing. However, as a soon-to-be college student, she was passionate about reducing sexual assault on college campuses. In Project Invent, she overcame her anxiety over engineering to design a smartwatch to help women easily alert their friends or police in dangerous situations. As someone who used to discourage herself, Polina shared that “Project Invent made me realize that I can indeed learn and do anything I set my mind to.” She is now attending Boston University and continuing to develop her product at their entrepreneurship center.
Students in Project Invent start engineering because of a passion for animal health, or an anger at the prevalence of homelessness, or an interest in making the world more disability-friendly. They are more drawn to the idea of taking action than to the engineering itself.
And with their laser focus on making an impact, students succeed as engineers and entrepreneurs. They invent incredible solutions to real problems in their communities.
One team, Stria, was inspired by the story of Jimmy, a 29-year-old man who recently became blind and was struggling with veering into traffic on his walks. After learning more about the problem that him and many other blind individuals face, they designed a smart waistband to help prevent blind people from veering into dangerous traffic. Within a few months, students had learned how to program, build circuits, solder, 3D print, and so much more. And they had developed the confidence that they could make a change. Their team of young makers won multiple awards, earned over $3,000, and were featured in multiple media outlets in their first year. They are now filing for a patent and incorporating their business.
Their success was not a fluke. 60% of our teams this year were selected as finalists in the Paradigm Challenge, a national invention competition for youth of all ages to tackle real-world problems and make a difference. One team became the grand prize winner of the AT&T Inventor’s Challenge, winning $1000 for their impactful invention to save lives.
Students are making impact in their community and growing as innovators and learners. One student shared: “Being a member of Project Invent has helped me grow in ways no class could teach me to. Being a part of this team has not only allowed me to sharpen those skills, but to also be an active changemaker.”
Now, we are bringing our programs nationwide. This year, we are empowering young people in 10 new cities to design for social good. We pair teams of students with real people in the community who face unique challenges, and students learn to empathize and develop innovative solutions to the problems they face. They spend the year translating the stories of their community into impactful solutions. Along the way, students confront difficult decisions, struggle through technical challenges, celebrate authentic wins, and, in the end, share their work to the public. Every student is pushed outside of their comfort zone, and every student grows as an empathetic changemaker.
But most importantly, every student sees that their unique ideas matter, and that they have the power to build a better world. And that’s a world I want to live in.
Excited for students in your community to make impact? Get our curriculum, free for download on our website. It includes 7 full lesson plans and 30+ activities to get students solving real problems in their community. Access it here: https://www.projectinvent.org/resources/
Connie is a mechanical engineer from MIT, passionate educator, and founder of Project Invent. She most recently taught design thinking & engineering at the Nueva School, one of the first K12 design thinking programs in the country. Now, she runs Project Invent, a national nonprofit inspiring and supporting high school students through designing technologies that make a difference. She is also an engineer and inventor in her own right, focused on designing assistive technologies to empower those with disabilities. In her free time, she likes to rock climb and play with her two cats.