Apr 29, 2022 | Atlanta, GA
For three fifth-grade students in Cobb County, a journey of a lifetime into science, creativity and innovation started with a simple lesson on empathy. The students, Jennings Blackstock, Joseph De Martini, and Bryn Rippeon, all 11 years old, were excited by the prospect of working as engineers and inventors in their advanced learning class at Mount Bethel Elementary School as a part of the K-12 InVenture Prize program developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
The curriculum guides students through the engineering design process to create an invention that solves a real-world problem and culminates in pitching the idea to earn a spot in the state competition held at Georgia Tech.
Their teacher, Maggie Hunter, encouraged the students to understand the needs of others by first looking inward as they began work on the semester-long project.
“We started with the foundation of empathy, teaching the students how to put themselves in other people's shoes, and its role in solving problems,” Hunter said. “We learned how inventions impact our families, communities, country, and planet. We then dug deeper by learning about the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, to expand awareness of important global issues. We talked about life underwater and life on land. Our students would gravitate towards issues that were important to them, then work in teams to conduct research to further understand the problem.”
The students zeroed in on overfishing as the broad issue they wanted to research, as they had personal experiences that made it important to them.
De Martini recalled a moment on a beach vacation that moved him to action. “There was a minnow that got washed up onto the sand and I just felt so bad for it because it was just like, ‘help me help me,’” he said. “And so, I scooped it up and brought it back to the ocean, just one fish. It made me wonder about all the other fish that are being caught and taken from their habitats.”
Rippeon had a similar experience. “I thought I was too little to do something about it,” she explained. “But I knew if I could find a way to help, then it would make a big difference.”
The invention that the team developed works by installing a scale and measurement bar into a metal bucket. When the limit of 12 pounds of fish has been reached, a sensor beeps to alert the fisher. Deciding on a reasonable limit for fishers was a key part of the process. In order to do so, the team surveyed family and friends who had an interest in the sport. The device can be used in freshwater as well as saltwater fishing.
“The Fish Saver is designed to be practical and to put good decision-making into the hands of those catching fish,” Rippeon said. “So, this is what the actual fishers will use. They take the fish out of the ocean and put it in the bucket. That’s how it works.”
To develop a creation as simple and effective as The Fish Saver, the team prototyped several ideas before settling on and refining their final design. Hunter explained that this process of extensive research and trial and error was essential to her students’ growth as inventors.
“We talked about the iterative process. We talked about prototyping. We discussed how to survey people, and how to get feedback from them because that's a real-world problem,” she said. “Inventors in the real world must get feedback to understand their users' needs before they put their product out to the masses.”
Blackstock said that while working to refine the design of the Fish Saver, she learned to embrace mistakes as part of the process. “I realized that we had a lot of different problems and that you learn from your failures,” she explained. “So, you may mess up on one thing, but then if you look over those problems and see what you did wrong, you can learn from what you did and make it right.”
Their creation earned Team Fish Saver honors in Georgia Tech’s K-12 Inventure Prize competition, sponsored by the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics & Computing (CEISMC). The competition encourages elementary, middle, and high school students in the state to present projects that identify real-world problems and design unique solutions. The students attended an awards ceremony at Georgia Tech in March where Team Fish Saver took home second place in the elementary school division.
In addition to the awards ceremony, students participated in hands-on STEM activities including EarSketch and Micro:bit coding, engineering design, and tours of Georgia Tech's Invention Studio. The day of events concluded with the annual Georgia Tech InVenture Prize Live Show at the Ferst Center. The Inventure Prize at Georgia Tech is an interdisciplinary innovation competition open to all undergraduate students and recent graduates of the Institute.
The visit to campus helped Rippeon change the way she thinks about her future college career. “It made me feel like a grown-up kind of, but also it gave me an idea of what it'll be like when I go to college,” she said. “I could invent things in college if I wanted to, or I could just study and then do it after I get my degree. It made me think a lot more about how many people really are trying to change the world.”
From a teacher’s perspective, Hunter commented that it’s important to stress just how transformational the process was for her students. “The most important thing that the kids learn is that they're inventors,” she said. “Oftentimes we see inventors as people that are a lot older. Maybe they are rich. Maybe they have lots of resources. They're these figures that are kind of out there, but we can't really connect with them. They don't feel real to us. And I just really wanted to teach them to see themselves as inventors and empower them to take risks, innovate, and be agents of positive change.”
Blackstock now has the confidence to try and change the world for the better. “Before this I thought maybe I could do something in my state. Maybe if I was lucky, I could help change the country,” she explained. “But now I know that I can share ideas that can be spread around the world. It could keep growing.”
De Martini believes that it is possible to make big changes in the world and it’s not always so difficult as it might seem. “Look, I just changed the world. I just touched this and there's a fingerprint,” he said. “Before this if someone asked me what my talents were, I would not have put inventing on the list. But after this experience, if I have a few partners, an idea, and the resources to make what it is, then I'm an inventor.”
Team Fish Saver will travel to Michigan in June to compete in the national competition.
—Randy Trammell, K-12 Inventure Prize Communications