IT was a wet and windy night when eight-year-old Lillian Lukas had her brainstorm. She was out walking with her mother when she noticed a blind person having trouble avoiding puddles on the sidewalk. That observation was the beginning of what eventually became a prize-winning invention, the ``Puddle Detecting Cane.'' Her invention was good enough to win ``Invent-America's'' nationally sponsored competition, and the prototype of her ``Puddle Detecting Cane'' is now in the Smithsonian Institution.
But just how do you make a puddle-detecting cane? Lillian turned to her dad for help. Scott Lukas is a doctor with a strong background in electronics, and he got Lillian started with a kit designed to help children understand the basics of electronic circuitry. He taught her how to solder, and helped with some of the sawing and drilling.
Lillian hit on the idea of imbedding two electrical contacts in the base of a wooden cane. When immersed in water, the contacts complete a circuit, sending a signal up to a buzzer, which warns the blind person of a puddle.
In the national contest, Lillian's cane competed against a motorized wheelchair ramp, a disposable frying pan, musical rain gear, and a beeper that keeps tabs on a wandering toddler, among many other entries.
A recent study released by the Department of Education reports that in math and science, children in the United States are lagging behind their counterparts in Canada, Great Britain, Japan, and South Korea.
But don't let the second-graders at the Dallin School in Arlington, Mass., hear you say that. That's where Lillian was going to school when she developed her invention. Thanks to her teacher, Karen Doliber, Lillian got an early start in creative thinking.
Mrs. Doliber uses study guides and information from ``Invent-America,'' a national educational program that encourages kids to think creatively.
``This program really helps the children with their thinking skills,'' says Doliber, as she sets out a variety of antique tools on a low table for the kids to examine. There's an old ice chipper, a shoe stretcher, an old stove-top toaster, and a portable scale. As the students try to guess the original function of the tools, they're learning to analyze, to question, and to think creatively. ``Hopefully they will take these skills into everyday life, in other problems they will have to solve,'' Doliber says.
She encourages her second-graders to be inventors, too, and in the process they're learning a lot more than just creative thinking. ``If we start a nation of children at a very young age feeling they can make a difference, and they develop thinking skills, we may rekindle that spirit of inventing in America.''
Lillian acknowledges her teacher as the one who got her started inventing. ``She helped me to keep on trying different ideas,'' says Lillian, speaking of her teacher, ``Like if this one didn't work, try another one and just add something.''
Success in the national contest has resulted in a shelf full of trophies and medals. ``I won a state and a school award, and then I went to Washington, because I won the regional,'' Lillian says. ``And I got a trophy for that, and I got a gold medal for the national.'' She even met President Bush.
But all the recognition wasn't why she designed the puddle-detecting cane. ``I just built this to help the blind people....I just want to give the parts to the blind schools and they can make theirs themselves.''
Lillian and her father continue to work on new, improved versions of the cane. They're developing a sensor that will work on a folding cane, and they've added an additional beeper that goes off if the cane is dropped, to aid in locating the cane.
With the contests over, Lillian is back to being just a regular kid, playing with her little sister, practicing her violin, and working on projects with her dad. But whether it's music, art, or inventions, for Lillian Lukas, it all adds up to the joy of discovery.