The Invention Program: Lessons Learned

(version 12/07/99, by F. Ruiz)

The course "Invention and Innovation Project" has run under funding from FIPSE and the NCIIA, from January 1996 to December 1999. The idea of the course is to help students to become more creative by engaging in actual inventions, their inventions. Each student is expected to come up with a problem and a patentable solution for it: new, useful, and not obvious. Students have individual projects but in a participating "small company" atmosphere. This atmosphere was created in our "Invention Center" where each student has a personal desk, in addition to shared computers for computation, word processing and Internet access and sufficient mechanical prototyping tools.

The course is best described in the attached syllabus (from Fall-99), which also spells out what the students were expected to do, and how the grades were determined. Keys to the success of the course were:

The course has quickly become a favorite with IIT’s top-notch students. Some of the students are thinking in taking it again next year. At least one project (from the Spring-96 semester) has resulted in a successful Level-3 proposal to the NCIIA, and to a BF. Goodrich Invention Award, received last Fall. Other projects are considered by local experts to be almost ready for commercialization —for instance: a portable ladder for hunters and a massaging infant car seat. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt to explain how each one of the components mentioned above has enhanced the course.

The Studio Setting

A studio is a place where artists do their stuff. It normally consists of a wide open room with ample windows and a sweeping view of the outside. A studio does not have phones or anything to distract the eye; it does not have plush carpet or sofas: the more naked, the better. Fine Art students are taught in "studio classes" where the instructor watches them make something —a painting, a sculpture, a musical composition— as they are making it. The instructor does not lecture. Neither does he (or she, obviously, in all that follows) spend all his time with one student; or spend equal time with each student, for that matter. Instruction is tailored to the specific needs —here and now— of the students. Creativity cannot be educated in any other way.

Our class takes place in a room where the students know that they go there to be creative. It works much better if the room is dedicated to the purpose. The presence of other students during the studio time who are doing something else is especially harmful to the atmosphere of the studio. The room does not have to be very large (I've found a 24 by 48 space to be just right for fifteen students) but it must have sufficient size for individual desks, a prototyping area, and a computing area, all within view.

Engineering has its creative side, what we could call "Invention," and that this is not really "taught" the way Mathematics are taught, by lectures, but that it rather consists in the development and education of an existing talent, a talent that has much that is artistic in it. A studio setting is a viable alternative for Engineering education, taking into account that the projects must be in Engineering. So, in my class, the students have their desks or "work-stations" and I walk around as they work on their projects. There may be similar projects, but each student has his own: creativity is a very personal thing.

Does this mean that each student is solely preoccupied with his own project, so that a true team is really never formed? This is largely avoided by the second component…

Weekly Presentations

The class runs under a umbrella assumption: we are all part of the same small corporation trying to come up with new products. The corporation has a staff meeting every week. Every employee must be present and tell the others what the status of his project is. Then he should be ready (and thankful) to collect all the feedback that the other employees are going to give him. Often the others will give ideas they themselves would have pursued if they had the time. If two students really want to work on the same project, that is no problem. It only means that their reports and presentations should be twice as good, because they have put twice as much work into them.

The only difficulty in running these meetings is making sure that they are brief. It is frequent for students to be carried away with enthusiasm and spend all the class time in hurling feedback ferociously at one another. A consequence is that this can only be done practically if the class size (or, at least, the meeting size) is kept within bounds. I have found fifteen students to be a good maximum.

On the other hand, if there are few students —and this can happen easily when the total class is less than ten students and there are exams looming in the horizon— then it is very difficult to get the right atmosphere for the discussion. There should be at least three or four students for the meeting to be fruitful; if there aren't enough, it is probably better to just do individual coaching.

But, are they going to give and get really good advice to one another? After all, they’re just students, not experts. That is why the class also calls for…

Seminar Speakers

They come roughly once a week, on a different day from that of the team meeting. The seminars last for about an hour, and they deal with real world issues: how to get a company started, what to do about patenting an idea, how to come up with ideas when they refuse to, how to convince the guys in the suits; and with "academic" but important issues: what did Edison do in his time, what physical effects can be exploited for what, and on and on.

There is no problem recruiting seminar speakers. Almost anybody who has started a small company or is dealing with inventions and I have invited has accepted eagerly. My problem has been scheduling the seminars so they happen at the point in the course that is most beneficial to the projects. Maybe we are especially lucky, because there are many people like that in the Chicago area who would willingly speak for free. But not everything is for free, that is why we need to have…

Funding

A budget is essential, at least, for the following categories:

If the students inventions are to have any chance of being successfully developed, it is important that they be "reduced to practice" in hardware. Many patented inventions come to nothing because, when built, defects are discovered that still need a lot of work and, usually, help from inventions developed elsewhere. Without the construction of prototypes —even simple ones— the invention would be reduced to a simple paper exercise. Moreover, dealing with the prototype is especially useful for students, who do not have a good feel for how certain components behave in practice. Prototype development also forces students to contact suppliers and developers outside the university, which adds a dimension of reality that other school projects lack.

Usually, it is enough with a seed fund assigned to each project (I’ve found that $200 per project seems to work all right for one-semester projects), with additional funding available for special cases. The seed fund can be administered by the students themselves, as long as they do not reach their limit. Special funding must be granted by the instructor.

In order to save up in construction costs, it is best if the students themselves can develop their prototypes. That takes equipment. In this year’s project, we have put together a small machine shop with a metal lathe, a mill, tabletop band-saw, drill-press and sander, and a variety of hand-tools. The next stage will involve acquiring electrical test equipment and special tools.

We have also acquired two Pentium-class computers which, connected to the Internet via Ethernet links, are getting heavy use for collecting information, patent searches, writing documents, and preparing presentations. Last semester, all the students stunned the general public with highly polished multimedia presentations, run directly from the computers. Two color ink-jet printers add to their reports. This way, the students get used to preparing professional-looking presentations.

Expert help comes in the form of outsourced construction, legal advice, marketing studies, and, occasionally, feature speakers (most speakers, however, willingly lecture for free). Having a fund to cover these expenses helps the instructor cover the gaps in his own expertise. Legal advice, in any case, is essential if any project is to lead to an actual patent.

How about instructional costs? Certainly this is the biggest expense, for faculty time does not come cheap, especially for small class sizes. I have managed, however, to get IIT to pick up the instructional expenses, so far. IIT views this course as a prototype "Interprofessional Project" which sets a pattern for future courses. Beginning with the Fall-99 juniors, all IIT undergraduate students will have to get three credit hours of projects in two years.

Another cost that is coming is in faculty development. Most faculty members have a very limited experience of the issues related with invention (why should they?, are they going to get tenure that way?) and this leads to a kind of fear in dealing with them. Yet, the issues themselves are very simple and easy to teach, and some experience can be gained by picking up a small project. This is why we are planning to run a series of workshops so that faculty members can learn about Invention issues and how to run a studio course on Invention. We are seeking NSF funding for getting this started.

I hope that a small "foundation" can be eventually set up to support the IIT Invention Center on a steady-state basis. I have started contacting people who could serve as board members. These members will mostly come from local industry, but I am also inviting people from outside. We had our first meeting at the end of of the Spring-97 semester, so they were able to see the students in the thick of their very demanding…

Schedule

Students —especially Engineering students— are used to a lot of pressure. They measure a course by the amount of work they have to put into it. The instructor that reduces the workload in his course soon sees students dropping out because: "I got so busy doing the homework for Dr. So and So’s class that I fell behind in yours," or: "Well, I didn’t realize two weeks before the report was due wasn’t quite enough; you should have told us!" Today’s students seem to have lost the ability to budget their time by themselves, without the instructors making constant demands on them by means of homework assignments, reports due, and various kinds of other deadlines. Naturally, a course run under an "artsy" studio paradigm is a prime candidate for skipping attendance, procrastination, and other sorts of corner-cutting, when faced with stone-hard deadlines in the disciplinary courses. Students do get enthused with their inventions, and they would willingly spend all their time working at them, but their deeply-ingrained instinct for maximizing grade tells them to do the Thermo assignment and leave their beloved invention for later. After all, it is kind of pleasure, right?

Right… and wrong. In my course, they have nearly as much homework to do as in Thermo. They have three fairly lengthy reports to write (the last one having two distinct parts) and three formal presentations. Moreover, their prototypes must work or they lose most of their grade. It’s not enough to look pretty.

Yes, but the students have never really been faced with practicalities like these. They tend to think their prototypes will work right the first time. That’s why they are students: they don’t know. Won’t it be too much to ask them to budget their time in doing something they have never done before? That’s why we have a…

Warm-up Project

We take the first four weeks of the semester developing a quick invention, with a report and a prototype ready to go by the deadline. I have used two kinds of assignments:

  1. a device to help the handicapped or the elderly
  2. a toy to be sold at the store for $15 or less.

These items can usually be made quite simple, although they have the same components as a full-fledged invention. Many are actually patented, which gives the students the opportunity to start making searches. Their commercialization is quite straightforward —or, at least, it appears to be so— liberating them from heavy business research. Perhaps most importantly, these are products that the students can easily relate to, in a field they already know, as users. It is much easier to excite their creativity and to weed through the bad ideas if they by themselves have a feel for what makes a good product.

At the end of these four weeks, they have gone through pretty much everything they will have to go through in their main project, and they have made all the obvious mistakes (such as not giving themselves enough time for prototype development) already. In this way, they are spared surprises with their main projects, without having had to waste too much time. An added benefit is that those students who are unable to turn their creativity on —there are some who have a wrong concept of what the course is about— will be able to drop out early. Finally, there’s rarely any major exam or assignment scheduled for the first four weeks, allowing the students to focus of the project. This makes them understand that developing an invention is not a leisurely activity: it can soak up all their time easily. It should, therefore —and this is the message I want to get through— be given equal status with Thermo.

It is common that a few students (about one quarter of those who start) will drop out during or at the end of the warm-up project. These are usually students who could not come up with an original idea in the short time allowed. In a way, it is better if they drop at this point, otherwise they would spend the rest of the semester fighting to come up with something and not getting anywhere; after all, Invention is an artistic activity, and it requires an innate talent. On the other hand, it is entirely possible that some of these students could have made it if they had received some special attention early on. We are planning to have some special aids avaialble for the next semester, to see if they help diminish the problem. Stay tuned.

Some of the recent projects

Most of the students’ inventions have an immediate commercial appeal because proving their usefulness was an integral part of each project. There are some, however, that were developed to a point where they could almost be commercialized. I intend to encourage these students to further develop their ideas and to ask, if they want, for outside funding. Here are the ones I think are closer to that stage:

Mike Klimavicius (junior, Mechanical Engineering) developed a portable ladder for hunters. Apparently, all the hunters’ ladders that can be found are rather bulky and easy to spot by the game. The current alternative to a ladder is to screw metal steps into the tree itself, which takes time and effort (often the steps are wasted, too) and, obviously, is not kind to the tree. Mike demonstrated a prototype weighing less than twenty pounds but able to support more than three hundred. His ladder reaches up to fifteen feet and can be set up in three minutes. It lies flat against the tree, so it is tough to spot. Mike has targeted a well defined market and knows how to advertise his product. After a second, more refined prototype, he only needs to get a patent and start making and selling the ladders. A conservative sales potential exists for more than twenty thousand units a year.

Jameelah Sharrieff (senior, Electrical Engineering) has put together a car infant seat that cuddles the child by means of strategically placed motors. The feature adds less than twenty dollars to the cost of the seat. Like in massage pads for adults, the massage pattern can be varied according to several programs. Testing has proved that Jameelah’s invention is very effective in soothing problem infants, both in and out of the car. She has now graduated from IIT, but intends to pursue a patent an commercialize her idea. Again, she has identified some ways the product can be made known, for a minimal additional cost.

Ken Morrison (senior, Mechanical Engineering) has developed a water-mattress attachment for regular beds. The device is extremely simple (so simple, I cannot give any more details here), but seems to be patentable. Amazingly, the patent literature has concentrated on rather involved devices whereas Ken’s, which works just as well as shown in his testing, can be made for a tenth of the cost of the others. It also results in substantial weight savings, so that people in apartments may be able to enjoy a waterbed for the first time. Like the other two projects, this one only needs a little more development before commercialization can be undertaken. He intends to submit a patent application soon.

Vide Sutalo's (junior,Mechanical Engineering) most interesting idea is, curiously, his warm-up project. This is a board game called "My Life Sucks" similar to Monopoly, but where the winner is the one who loses all his money the fastest. The square names and card texts are all very hilarious. A lot of fun to play in a party. He should make a lot of money with this.

There are more, of course, but I mentioned these few here because I think they are particularly close to becoming commercial. In retrospective, I think the short time available in the class is an encouragement for students to quickly identify a need an develop a simple solution to meet it. Simple solutions are inexpensive to produce, easy to commercialize, and give better results in actual use. I expect this will continue in the future so that this class will be a source, not only of well-rounded, creative students, but also of inventions that will benefit society.


I would appreciate any feedback. Please drop me a note at: ruiz@iit.edu