Westfield’s Franklin Elementary School fifth-graders Alex Keri and Owen Mason won the top spot worldwide in the 2014 Spark!Lab Invent It! Challenge hosted by ePals and the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. They bested all others in the 8-10 age group for team invention. Hundreds of students from around the globe submitted entries.
Their invention features varied random number generators that help teachers randomly pick teams, call on students, assign tasks, or create a fully randomized seating chart. Alex and Owen call their invention The Teacher’s Toolkit, created through an application programmed in Scratch -- a free educational programming language that was developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Alex, Owen, and a number of other students led Scratch workshops for students in the fourth and fifth grades during lunch and recess.
In describing the invention, Owen said, “When you decide to pick someone randomly, your brain actually thinks about who the best person to pick would be. So, if you’re a teacher, you probably have trouble picking random teams or calling on a random student -- even if you think you don’t.”
“Right now it [the invention] is only in beta form, but we will be updating it and improving it, including more functions,” he added.
“One program is an automatic seating chart,” stated Alex. “It’s much better than the hours teachers spend with cardboard and post-its. Teachers often call on one gender more than another by accident, but not with the Teacher’s Toolkit. The Teacher’s Toolkit has a program that can call on a boy then a girl. This is good because it shows no obvious favoritism. The great thing about Teacher’s Toolkit is that it can work for any size class, even if you have a 90-student class.”
This was the second year in a row that fifth grade students from Franklin Elementary School earned top honors for their age group in this global invention challenge. Their teacher, Betsy Freeman, challenged students to find a problem that they care about and to invent a solution to solve it. They use research and observation to better understand the problem and to see how others may have tried to solve it. Next they use the steps of the Engineering Design process to design a solution, diagram it, create a prototype, test it, collect feedback, and then improve it. They are also responsible for documenting their process, creating an advertisement, and developing their “elevator speeches” to persuade others to invest in their ideas and invention.
“The goal of this project is to inspire and empower students to use the academic skills they are building to innovate, to improve something that is meaningful to them, and to create a real-world solution,” stated Freeman. “Working on a project borne from their own interests and motivation drives their need to know, need to learn, need to create, need to invent, need to share, and need to improve. Kids learn best and enjoy work most when it is personally meaningful, just as adults do,” she added.
“We’re continually amazed by and extremely proud of our students at Franklin,” commented Principal Eileen Cambria. “During our Hour of Code this past school year, we introduced coding, or computer programming, to all of our students, first graders through fifth graders. We did so not because we expect them to become professional programmers, but so that they learn to reason systematically, applying mathematical and computational concepts, and they learn to persist. Equally as important, they collaborate, they think creatively, and they find new ways to express their ideas,” noted Dr. Cambria.
The 2014 Spark!Lab Invent It! Challenge is the third annual global invention challenge hosted by ePals and the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Students ages 5-18 from around the world are challenged to think about a real world problem and invent a solution. Students are asked to follow a series of key steps in the invention process to design and market their invention. Winners were selected by a panel of judges from the Smithsonian and Cricket Media.