Invention Education Toolkit

Invention Education Toolkit By Fred Bauder [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons


This sheet provides background information about invention education and guidelines for problem solving and iterative design.


Invention education has at least two key differences from traditional classroom approaches:

  • First, the classroom is hierarchically flat. The teacher is part guide, project manager, coach, safety officer, and concierge—not the know-it-all at the front of the classroom issuing instructions. With an invention education approach, students take responsibility and initiative for organizing and progressing through iterative phases of discoveryplanning, project initiation, completion, feedback, assessment, and review.
  • Second, non-traditional sources of classroom knowledge and expertise are valued—perhaps even prioritized—over conventional texts, exercises, and problem sets. Inviting a practicing, problem-solving engineer into class to apply her or his knowledge and serve as a project mentor is one of the most potent forces of learning there is because it becomes rooted emotionally in a relationship—with a person, with categories of knowledge, with habits of mind, and problem solving techniques.

Here are some background resources for invention education:



The skills needed to invent are useful in many ways. Whether you’re inventing the light bulb, a new democratic republic, or just trying to find a way to be more successful on your next math test, how you think about solving that problem is much the same. Scientists and engineers have systematic ways of approaching problems. In science, we call it “the scientific method.” Engineers call it the “design process.”  Best-selling leadership author Orrin Woodward calls it PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Adjust). Read the following case studies and look for the similarities between two very successful people.

History of the Light Bulb
Most people are familiar with the story of Thomas Edison and the light bulb. The story goes that Edison failed 10,000 times on his way to inventing the light bulb. There are two problems with that statement. One, Edison did not invent the light bulb; he perfected, patented, and commercialized it. And second, the exact number of attempts to perfect the light bulb seems to be a matter of debate. Suffice it to say, it was a lot. 

The idea of the light bulb was first theorized by an Italian monk, named Guiseppe Ponzelli in 1747. In 1802, Humphry Davy used a very large batter to create incandescence in a strip of platinum. It was not very bright and didn’t last very long, but it was a start. 

Over the next 75 years, many experiments were done with various combinations of platinum or iridium wires, carbon rods, and evacuated glass enclosures. In 1835, James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated his light bulb that was bright enough to read by at one and one half feet from the light.

In 1845, John Starr got a patent for his incandescent light bulb that used carbon filaments. But he died shortly after acquiring the patent and his invention was never used commercially. In 1874, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans were awarded a patent for their version of the light bulb that used carbon rods in a glass cylinder filled with nitrogen gas. They were unsuccessful at commercializing their design, and sold the patent rights to Edison in 1879.

Edison began serious research into producing a commercially viable incandescent light in 1878. He experimented with many different filaments. The number of attempts cited ranges from 100 to 10,000. A quote of Edison from an article in Harper’s Magazine, however, gives us some idea of the real number. “I speak without exaggeration when I say that I have constructed three thousand different theories in connection with the electric light, each one of them reasonable and apparently to be true. Yet only in two cases did my experiments prove the truth of my theory. My chief difficulty, as perhaps you know, was in constructing the carbon filament, the incandescence of which is the source of the light.” 

Edison was really good at failing. He just was never willing to quit. Most people, when they fail, come to the wrong conclusion that, at best, their idea was a failure or, at worst, they themselves are a failure. Edison knew the truth. Failure is a very important step toward success. In a 1910 biography of Edison, the biographer said to Edison, “Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?” Edison replied with a big smile on his face, “Results! Why, man, I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!”

The history of many of our greatest innovations and inventions would follow a similar story. No one ever got perfect results the first time. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and innovations and successes take time, effort, and persistence. 

Telegrams in an Instant
Kevin Systrom went to Stanford University. He dropped out of computer programming because it was too hard. He loved photography, so he took a photography class in Italy. When he returned to Stanford, he switched to engineering and got into an elite internship with Odeo (which became Twitter). After graduating, he got hired by Google. He then decided Google wasn’t for him and quit to work for a travel startup where he learned to program on his own.

He later said, “I had a new skill I could put to use. When you had an idea, you could actually create it.” And he did have ideas. His idea was to make a website for photos and location check-ins and social gaming. Four Square and Zynga already existed and did those things, but he wanted to do it in a different way. He was told by his investors that he needed a co-founder to get funding and chose Mike Kreiger. On the day they launched their company, Burbn, he told Krieger that it wouldn’t work. Four Square already had too much market share. So they made a key shift. They had to build something new. They ditched location sharing and dropped the gaming. Their new idea would just be about photo sharing.

The pair then had a key Insight. “The iPhone was so new and people were creating really cool stuff, and creating new behaviors, it was an opportunity to create a new type of service, a social network, that wasn’t based on a computer, but based on the computer in your hand.” They were some of the first to recognize that the iPhone had changed the world: that the Internet was now mobile.

The world had been split to computer-based and mobile Internet. They were one of the first and the best at creating a native mobile platform. Their app would take the photo with the device and share directly from that device. They were mobile before most people realized that there was a mobile.

So they got busy creating the app they called “Code Name.” They finished it in a couple of weeks. Neither of them was enthusiastic about it. So Systrom did something really smart. He took a break and went to the beach in Mexico. His girlfriend got a photo from a friend using their app that had a different look to it. She asked how the friend had gotten that look. He casually replied, “Oh, filters. She just put a filter on her camera.” Then it hit him. He went back to their room and got out his laptop. His vacation was over. He coded non-stop and created the first filter that would be built into the Instagram App.

The buzz began to build around the app as they shared it with their friends in the tech industry. They made it easy, slick, intuitive, and cool. In the first 24 hours after its release, they had 25,000 downloads and 1,000,000 users in just one month. Facebook bought Instagram 22 months after launch for $1,000,000,000. And it is now worth $10 billion.

This is why we should PDCA in all aspect of our lives. You might have a key insight or key shift to improve a product, a sport, academics, etc.

There must be a key insight or you’re just a copycat.  Most success stories have many key shifts along the way. This is why thinking is so important. If you think like everyone else, you’ll get everyone else’s results. There must be key combinations or you’re not innovating. Innovation is nothing but new combinations. There will be shifts simply because nobody gets it right the first time.

Questions to Consider

How many people have used Instagram?


What do you think is the coolest feature of it?


How is Systrom’s story similar to Edison’s?


What did it take in each case for them to be successful?


Application to “Real Life”

What is the opposite of success?


Would you have the tenacity, courage, and conviction to “fail” thousands of times as Thomas Edison did to reach a dream or goal that you have?


What is one area of your life where you have a dream or goal? What is it?


What action steps would be necessary as part of a Plan to reach that goal?


What character traits are necessary to Do your plan?


How will you Check you plan along the way? How will you know if your plan is working? What might you have to do if it isn't?

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