Backstory: Children of Invention
Lost your key? Got birds? Connect the dots, Einstein! You need a bird-feeding key-keeper.
Spencer McVeigh is one of America's youngest inventors. Her Bird-Feeding Key-Keeper took first prize among second-graders at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School's Inventor's Showcase recently, no small feat considering the competition: a solar-powered dog door, wiggle-proof bedding, a magnetic toy-picker-upper and, of course, a better mousetrap.Skip to next paragraph
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The prod to invent is as ubiquitous in American schools as the spelling bee, and the Inventor's Showcase is a loosely annual affair at this suburban San Diego school. It encourages the under-12 set to tackle their vexing problems.
Stepping into the bright but stuffy all-purpose room, I understood why the word "American" is so often paired with "ingenuity;" why ABC's new reality TV show - "American Inventor" - is one of the country's top 20 shows. But prime-time inventors are limited to creations with "wide consumer appeal," says the show's website.
Not so at Phoebe Hearst Elementary, where the spirit of true innovation - think Thomas Edison, Samuel Morse, George Washington Carver, or Jonas Salk - was in abundance. Row upon row of brilliant ideas, impressive prototypes, and beautiful display boards explaining how inventions worked, were constructed, and, ultimately, why they were necessary.
Fourth-grader Devin Hatfield's "Cool Cap," for instance, makes it possible - finally! - to sit through a Padres game without internally combusting. A billed cap with slits for ice pouches, it keeps the wearer cool, and can be used at recess too. "I get pretty hot running around," he explained.
What fourth grader Lexee Hutchens's Fishtastic Maze lacked in necessity, it made up for with existential flair: "Would you be bored if you were stuck having to swim in a bowl all day?" quizzed her display board. The maze aimed to keep her guppies occupied in brightly colored curving plastic tubes. But it was so tough for the guppies to figure out, confided Lexee's mother Karee, that "I keep having to sneak back [into the exhibit] to take out the dead fish."
Personal experience inspired Spencer McVeigh's winning idea. "We were locked out last summer and it was really hot. We had to walk all the way back to school to call my dad," she said, adding "we always keep forgetting to feed the birds." That 8-year-old logic may be a bit of a stretch for adults. Still, we've all faced the problem of finding a good hiding place for spare keys, so why not the bird feeder?
In the more sequential logic that only too-hot-chocolate could inspire, Katie Deutschman fashioned a cup and saucer with thermometers in and out of the cup. A special temperature chart helps the sipper avoid tongue burns. The optimum temperature for hot chocolate? "About 110 degrees," said the fourth-grader.
Nicholas Patrick created a plastic model of a Dog Safety Fence for pets who dig under fences, or in other words, every dog. "When the dog digs," explained third-grader Nicholas, who does not own a dog, "poles drop down to stop him from getting under the fence, so he can't go anywhere."
There was also a spiral notebook designed to eliminate "the pain and agony of left-handers in a right-handed world" - the spiral binding was on the right side (and, no, the inventor didn't just turn a tablet backward).