Findings from the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index

Findings from the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index. Teachers rank highest, followed by doctors, scientists, military personnel, engineers, and politicians.

If you had to choose, which profession would you say contributes most to society’s well-being? According to the recent Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey that gauges kids’ perceptions about invention and innovation, teens rate teachers highest, followed by doctors (see graphic). Less than one-fifth of respondents viewed scientists as having the highest impact on society and only 5 percent chose engineers.

One reason might be because students simply aren’t aware what professionals in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) do and don’t have suitable role models. But the good news is that teens are excited to learn. Indeed, 77 percent were interested in pursuing a STEM career, and 85 percent wish they knew more about STEM in order to create or invent something. The most effective way to engage them is through hands-on activities with enthusiastic mentors and teachers. Passion seems to be essential. More than half of respondents (55 percent) would be more interested in STEM simply by having teachers who enjoy the subjects they teach.

The most inspiring training grounds, teens indicated, were field trips to view STEM in action and places outside the classroom where they can build things and conduct experiments (53 percent).

Learn more about the Invention Index’s findings and how you can mentor students in STEM subjects.

Design Squad Host Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 stands ready (on roof) while Zach Tribbett ’12 tests a T-shirt shooter for the WNBA that can reach an arena's upper deck.

Design Squad Host Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 stands ready (on roof) while Zach Tribbett ’12 tests a T-shirt shooter for the WNBA that can reach an arena's upper deck.

Ask MIT engineers to help create a TV show and what do you get? Design Squad, PBS’s Emmy- and Peabody-award-winning show that aims to educate and excite tweens and teens about engineering. On it, teams of teenage contestants design and build problem-solving products for actual clients, such as a remote-controlled aquatic pet rescue vehicle for the New Orleans Fire Department or a portable peanut-butter-making machine for a women’s collective in Haiti, while competing for a $10,000 scholarship. Filmed near Boston, Design Squad is half show, half engineering outreach. The companion Web site offers hands-on activities, educators’ guides, videos of working engineers, and more. Watch the show.

As host of the show, Ball would monitor teams' progress and scout for lessons to emphasize to viewers through narrated animations.

As host of the show, Ball would monitor teams' progress and scout for lessons to emphasize to viewers through narrated animations.

Several members of the MIT community have been instrumental in the development and production of the show. To name a few, Daniel Frey PhD ’97, associate professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems, served as the show’s first advisor, in 2002, and created the curriculum in collaboration with producers at WGBH-TV Boston. He also oversaw UROP students participating in the show. David Wallace SM ’91, PhD ’95, professor of mechanical engineering, has created design challenges, served as technical advisor on set, mentored teams, and aided post-production. Inventor Nate Ball ’05, SM ’07 hosts the show and some MIT students have been cast members.

The show aims to introduce the process and practice of engineering and demystify it as a possible career choice. “[TV] can certainly offer exposure to the world of engineering in a much more visual and experiential way than you can get otherwise,” says Ball, who loved to tinker and build things as a kid but didn’t know what mechanical engineers did until he went to college. Still, reality TV as a teaching tool does have its demands. Ball has to balance a mix of excitement, interest, competence, and zaniness and also works to buoy and motivate contestants during frustrating moments so they don’t just reflect aggravation on camera.

Tribbett during the season finale, when contestants were dropped off on Misery Island in Salem Sound and given limited materials to build a boat and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball thinks this was one of the most successful challenges of the season. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."

Tribbett during the season finale. Contestants had to build a boat on Misery Island in Salem Sound and make it a half mile back to shore. Ball considers this a successful challenge. "It was a great mix of we've got to get this right or we're going to sink."

Tight time and budget constraints, which prevent overtime, offer some of the greatest struggles. Contestants have 16 hours to complete challenges, yet they can be held up waiting to film key moments, like joining two pieces of a design together. “Whenever we were going on to the next step in the process, they’d have to get that on camera,” says Zach Tribbett ’12, a math and brain and cognitive sciences major from West Chester, Pennsylvania, who appeared on the third (and most recent) season. If the camera operator was occupied, contestants had to wait. Then, they’d have to restage the shot from different angles. A two-minute procedure could take 20 minutes to an hour. (more…)

Gloucester High School students CJ Mustone (right) and Brandon Henry (left) describe their engineering projects to Eric Mears ‘80. Photo: DUE

Gloucester High School students CJ Mustone (right) and Brandon Henry (left) describe their engineering projects to Eric Mears ‘80. Photo: DUE

For the last several months, a collaboration between the Gloucester Public School system, the Gloucester Education Foundation, and the MIT Edgerton Center has explored fresh ways to engage students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) through new curriculum,  professional development, student programs, and interaction with MIT alumni volunteers.

According to a newsletter released by MIT’s Dean of Undergraduate Education (DUE) this spring, the collaboration has been a huge success.

“Imagine being a sixth grader with an MIT graduate at your side helping you build your very own rocket launcher, underwater robot, or  boat from scratch,” wrote Amanda Gruhl in the newsletter. “This fantasy is becoming a reality for many Gloucester students thanks to [the partnership].”

Indeed, during one reception to promote the program, Gloucester High physics teacher Kurt Lichtenwald reportedly told attendees how proud he was that several of his students who were previously uninterested in science had developed new fascinations with robotics since teaming up with the MIT alums.

The group is still looking for alums who would like to volunteer. For more information, send an email to Amanda Gruhl, Edgerton Center Alumni Coordinator.