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.

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).

One invention aimed squarely at the No. 1 kid problem: a messy room. A prototype of a Tarzan-like swing involved Barbie sweeping across a toy-strewn floor with a cleanup bag in one hand, the other hand snatching up the toys.

Many of the inventions were less self-serving and more thoughtful of others - namely their overindulgent, exhausted parents (who were even more exhausted after all the impressive Inventor Showcase prototypes, display boards, and dead-fish extractions). For example, fourth-grader Johanna Matt-Navarro's drinking cup with an attached sponge at the bottom helps eliminate the postspill parent relay from table to sink. Fifth-grader Cristina Detwiler's "Scrush" reduces the length of the morning tangle tussle by allowing moms to brush their child's hair and apply frizz-control product simultaneously. The winner, in my opinion, of the Nobel Prize for household sanity was Carson McCalley's "Sticky Socks," which, by means of Velcro, rids us of infuriating singleton socks, their mates "lost" in the dryer.

All the big ideas can be contagious, and it's easy to see this is one school assignment kids don't groan over - it's a bandwagon easy to jump on, particularly these days, when the promise of the market picking up an idea is always a possibility.

"There is a huge interest in the country now in invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship," says Nicholas Frankovits, executive director of the National Museum of Education in Akron, Ohio, which created the National Gallery for America's Young Inventors. "Colleges want to infuse it into their curriculums.... [And] now that China has taken over a great deal of manufacturing, I almost get the feeling that the US is beginning to believe if we can't out-manufacture you, we'll out-invent you."

Parents here at the San Diego school's showcase marveled at the diversity and originality of some of the truly brilliant ideas. We also wondered, often aloud, if some of these kids - perhaps, say, our own - might not be a budding Einstein.

Experts say that's tough to tell. The extraordinary creativity and inventiveness a child may exhibit at any given moment could just as well be genius as a developmental glitch, suggests Vanessa Jensen, a pediatric psychologist with the Children's Hospital at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Indeed, sometimes kids are exceptionally creative because of what they don't know, says Lauren Littlefield, a psychologist at Washington College in Chestertown, Md., "Kids can think more freely than adults because of the limitations of their knowledge," she says.

Genius or glitch, the ingenuity behind the creations at the Inventor's Showcase was comforting.

"It gives me hope for the future," one parent remarked.

For me, that hope took shape in second-grader Myles Epps, who invented a humane mousetrap. Why did he do it? He'd seen a conventional mousetrap in action. In Myles's future, mice will no longer be brutally killed. Instead, the weight of the mouse will turn the trap's pivoting floor and deposit the rodent in a compartment with a closing door. The mouse can then be released somewhere else. A student sitting nearby listening to Myles said, "I don't get it." [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Myles Epps's name.]

But Myles, the kind of 7-year-old you'd hope will lead others someday, turned calmly to his classmate and said: "I just decided there had to be a better way."

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