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Invention Ambassadors Promote Persistence and Problem Solving

Ten Lemelson Ambassadors share the inventions they would most like to create to help society. | Juan David Romero/AAAS

A professor who teaches robots to provide therapy to children with disabilities, an entrepreneur who designed self-powered rescue vehicles to prevent ocean drownings, and a filmmaker who invents new filmmaking techniques to document natural phenomena like the entire lifespan of a flower and each wing beat of a bee are among the 2016 AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors.

Despite their diverse fields of work, the 10 ambassadors share three qualities: they are successful inventors who try to solve problems that will improve people’s lives, and they encourage others to become inventors as well.

“Things don’t always work right the first time as an inventor,” said Eric Fossum, who invented small digital camera sensors for NASA's interplanetary spacecraft that led to cell phone cameras. “This is a very important part of almost every inventor’s story: struggling with failure, dealing with setbacks and moving forward anyway.” But, “in school, kids are taught to get the right answer the first time. They’re not taught, ‘Oh, it’s ok to not get the right answer the first time and go back to the drawing board,’” he said.

That’s why Fossum and several other ambassadors already work with students to teach them how to be inventors. Fossum spends time with elementary children at Camp Invention, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, of which he is a member. The camps, which are held across the country for elementary children, use experiential learning to practice inventing. It also instructs teachers how to teach STEM and invention skills.

“We try to find people who have invented something meaningful, who have a passion for sharing their knowledge, and who are good communicatorss,” said Yolanda Comedy, director of the AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity, which coordinates the ambassadors program. The program usually selects seven ambassadors each year, but this year, “we had so many excellent candidates that we chose 10,” Comedy said. View the full list of Invention Ambassadors here and see the inventions they most would like to create (see video above).

The Invention Ambassadors program, now in its third year, is sponsored by the AAAS and the Lemelson Foundation, a philanthropic organization that promotes inventions that will improve people’s lives around the world. The program provides communications training and travel expenses for ambassadors, who commit to making at least two presentations about inventing during their year-long tenure.

The new Invention Ambassadors spoke at a 14 July ceremony honoring them at AAAS headquarters.

Maria Oden, a professor of engineering at Rice University, echoed Fossum’s concerns. “Inventions can change the world. But in order to have inventions, we need inventors. And the question is, ‘How do we groom people who want to invent – who want to have real impact?’”

Oden, who has invented health technologies to improve global medical care in the poorest settings, addresses that question by training undergraduates to become inventors. She leads an engineering “Design Kitchen” and the Rice 360 degree Institute for Global Health, where students and faculty tackle real world problems submitted by industry, local community partners and medical researchers. When they meet real people who are affected by a problem, the students are much more motivated and interested in finding solutions than they are when given a hypothetical scenario, Oden said.

One of Oden’s student groups began working on designing a non-electric wheelchair that could be propelled by a young man who had limited use of his arms. The students began working on a design as sophomores, and continued working on it, refining it, starting over, redesigning and redesigning until they created one that worked well and could pass a safety review. After working on it for two years, they delivered a wheelchair to the now 15-year-old. The wheelchair allowed the teen to go to the corner store for the first time on his own – the first trip he had ever taken e anywhere without the help of someone, Oden said.

Everyone can become an inventor by looking around, finding challenges, and doing something about it, she said. “We all have that capacity. So that is my challenge to you: have real impact,” Oden said.