Invention Literacy Wrap – Up 2017

This year’s Invention Literacy PBL was hard fun and a great experience! I was stoked to try out this PBL with two different English classes.In April/May both a 9th grade ELA and 10th grade ELA teacher came to the library to explore the invention literacy concept. Mrs. Melvin’s classes explored materials as the intro to this PBL, while Mrs. Feranda’s classes attended the Melvin’s students’ maker fest. If you didn’t read about the 2016 Invention Literacy project, read about it here and read more about the big ideas behind Invention Literacy here.  (My obsession with this concept was inspired by Makey Makey co-inventor, Jay Silver.)

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PBL Format

We started this year’s project by having students explore materials and techniques with cardboard, circuits, LEGO, Hummingbird Robotics, etc. For one teacher, Mrs. Melvin, I made a list of materials they could explore and let students choose a material to learn more about.Instead of having stations where students explore all materials, they chose something to work with to explore this day. So if they decided they wanted to make something with littleBits, they explored littlebits and started prototyping. If they decided they wanted to build something with cardboard, they explored cardboard techniques! This material exploration was based on a workshop I attended at SXSWedu with Erin Riley, Christa Flores, Patrick Benfield, and Sean Justice.

For Feranda’s classes, we had guided stations with cardboard techniques, squishy circuits, and a write-around activity with Jay’s Invention Literacy Medium post. (Similar to how we started the PBL last year.)

After material exploration, our students focused their thinking with this driving question:

“How does ______  work and can I make my own version of it with recyclables and available material?”

After brainstorming invention ideas, students were required to research the history of the invention, and discover how the invention works. For students that still weren’t sure what they wanted to make, I shared a list of crowd-sourced invention sites as well as tips for evaluating crowdsourced resources. (If you are interested in this concept, Aaron, Diana, and I wrote a lot of info about crowdsourcing research in our Challenge Based Learning book!)

Here are my favorite crowd-sourced sites to look for invention ideas:

Reputable Sites for Inventing

After deciding on an invention and researching the history and some material ideas, the students spent time prototyping and making the invention with the materials we had available in the library.  While students could create projects based on other things they’d seen in the sites above, we told them they had to change it in some way and make it their own. For some students this meant substituting materials and for others it meant completely running with a new idea.  Big concepts tied to maker mindset seen in this project were:

    • Seeing everyday materials in a new light with inventive material usage.
    • Encountering real problems and tinkering to problem solve with creative solutions.
    • Allowing students to pick up new skills when needed instead of being directed to learn specific skills.
    • As teachers, stepping back and letting kids try new things, experiment with ideas, fail forward, and persevere through failure.
    • Allowing students to own their learning!

Read more about how the prototyping experience helped immerse our students at Ryan in the maker mindset in this previous post on the 2017 PBL here.

Adding Exploration and Documentation

One thing we added to the PBL this year, was exploration of materials as an intro to making. I think the students who were allowed the freedom to explore whatever material they wanted, ended up making more unique projects than the students who explored materials in set stations. Partly this is because some student explored materials they were unfamiliar with and found new things they wanted to use in their inventions. The open ended exploration also made certain classes focus on certain types of making like making things light up or building things with cardboard. However, the outcome of learning seemed similar for both.

Adding Documentation

Three days into prototyping, Mrs. Melvin and I noticed that some students appeared to be starting from the beginning.  However, we knew we’d seem them engaged and working consistently.  For three days they had tried ideas, failed, and improved their thinking. Unfortunately, they hadn’t tracked this learning because we didn’t have documentation as part of our process yet.

For this reason, Mrs. Feranda and I instituted some time for students to document and reflect on their learning after prototyping each day. For documentation, wtudents wer asked to take a picture of what they worked on for the day, summarize what they learned, and discuss any new skills they picked up. By incorporating documentation, we were able to stress to our students that the process is more important than the outcome. We were able to celebrate persevering through failure and celebrate all the new skills kids added to their toolbox as they were making their inventions.


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Cool Stuff Kids Made

The students were really into building things out of cardboard and crafting DIY circuits and switches this year. Mrs. Melvin helped me teach so many kids how to sew circuits for wearables projects! One of my favorite was a light up dog collar that a student made for walking her dog at night.  These videos compile a lot of cool stuff our students made:

The dog collar project got me thinking that I’d like to have inventions focus on empathy this next school year.  However, I still see a lot of validity in letting students experience figuring out how to make something just for the challenge of understanding our world.

This PBL creates authentic problems for students to solve, especially if you push utilizing inventive materials.  Running into lots of problems was a very good lesson for our high school students, as many of them said they were not used to being able to do their own thing during the school day.


Students reflected on their invention process with Flipgrid videos, but Mrs. Melvin also had them write reflections.  We found out that many students didn’t realize they could be creative, nor did they realize they could solve their own problems. Here are some of  Mrs. Melvin’s favorite reflections from our sophomores:

  1. What skill/skills did you have to learn in order to complete your project?  
  • Problem solving and Improvisation  
  • Team work
  • Patience
  • Communication
  • To not give up and to keep going
  • You have to work with what you have
  • Sometimes you have to alter instructions to fit your circumstances
  • I’ve learned to share my ideas with another person and give my opinion instead of keeping the creativity to myself. It helped me be more patient when working with partners because i couldn’t go as fast as i would by myself. I now realized sometimes i can create something better with someone else.
  • How to work led lights and the safety of cutting styrofoam.
  • Learning by doing
  • Understanding directions
  • The skills I had to learn in order to create this project was creativity . Since we were not able to make the design exactly like the instructions I had to find other objects to make my project unique.
  • Reflect on the whole invention making process.  What did you enjoy about the process? Dislike?



  • I enjoyed working with friends and accomplishing the goal that i wanted to get done.
  • I enjoyed cutting out pieces, and then gluing them together.
  • I enjoyed the freedom given in deciding what we could build
  • I liked is finding what stuff to use to make the guitar.
  • I enjoyed everything on this project, because it was a different assignment than other on this class. I liked to look at everybody’s projects and all the variety of things we make.
  • I thought the neatest part was we had the freedom to make anything we wanted.
  • I enjoyed being the one who made it. I got to work with my hands to make my idea “come to life.” I also liked seeing my invention be successful after it was done. It was able to carry several pounds.
  • I liked how we were able to learn new things and work together when we needed help to succeed.



  • I didn’t really dislike anything probably just us arguing but that’s about it.
  • I disliked that i got lazy around the end and made her arms out of yarn. `
  • I didn’t like everyone being cramped in the card board area.
  • I disliked that it took longer than expected and the instructions for the tutorials on how to use a 3D printer weren’t as clear as expected.



  1. What was the most challenging part of the project for you?
  • working together because we would argue on where the things go.
  • The most challenging thing for me was teamwork.
  • to communicate with others
  • Making it work the way we wanted it because it kept messing up after we would shoot it. (Catapult)
  1. What did you learn about yourself during this project? How can you take what you have learned and apply it to your own life?
  • I learned to have more communication with people and don’t get off track.
  • What I learn about myself is that i can actually make something, before the project I didn’t think I could build anything.
  • I learned to be more patient on what am I doing and being more independent doing difficult things by myself.
  • I learned that you have to be really flexible and roll with the punches because, lots of things didn’t work out. In the project I had to fix many things just like in life I’ll have to be flexible when things don’t work out and have to fix things.
  • I have learned that I can solve difficult problems on my own, and that if it doesn’t work the first time it doesn’t mean it’s not meant to be.
  • I learned that you can make anything with junk. That i can problem solve and take junk and make something new.
  • I learned how to plan things and sketch things out. Basically, like a blueprint I could use later on when I’m trying to build something useful
  1. What advice would you give your teacher to help improve the process for next year?
  • Give more examples
  • Give more time
  • the library didn’t have all the supplies we needed
  • Showing us more invention examples, explaining why this is important, and giving us more direction in starting our inventions.
  • The advice I would say is maybe more resources for wanting to accomplish something beautiful that would be awesome and interesting that we made up but other than that, this was fun on trying to figure out how to make new inventions out of everyday objects  




Resource- Crowdsourcing Invention Literacy at #SXSWedu

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It’s time for the final reflection post from SXSWedu! Here is a link to the first post on sharing mistakes and failing forward, and the second post on the importance of exploring materials. 

Invention Literacy Core Convo

Invention Literacy

If you have never been to a core conversation at SXSWedu, it’s a unique experience in a conference setting where educators sit Socratic seminar style and the presenters ask the audience questions. In this post, I’m including our questions and the audience responses. In the instance where I could decipher who said the quote in the recording, I put the name of the audience member. See full set of questions with embedded resources here. (Since the presentation is made in Adobe Spark, it is best viewed on a computer.)

Ques and Ideas from the Invention Literacy Core Convo

Defining Invention Literacy – How would you define it?

  • “Helping students understand how to create things or bring things into being.” Sam Patterson
  • “The ability to look at existing objects and realize they are brought into being too.”
  • “You have a set of skills that allow you to think about problems differently.”
  • “Tools- That enable students to approach something and being able to create.”
  • “Ideas can be thought of as tools. When should we think about ideas as tools vs truth? ” – Jay Silver

Why is Invention Literacy Important?

  • “What idea can I put out into the world as a stepping stone that is graspable? So that we will have a fabric of independent thinkers that form their own world view? So they can think of beautiful things or work together as humanity?” – Jay Silver
  • “Because it’s fun and it’s engaging.”
  • “To create independence. To create the ability for them (our students) to not rely on just one thing.”
  • “Great chance for learning how to fail and stick-to -it-ive ness” – Leah Mann
  • “To introduce them to uncertainty. And teach students that they can figure out how to do things. You can just think about what’s in front of you and come up with a solution.” – Sam Patterson
  • “How do we keep our students from losing their sense of wonder as they grow older?”- Me
  • “Kids are naturally inquisitive and we need to harness that. Allowing them to make and create, gives them the forum to answer their own questions and not rely on other people. ” – 1st grade teacher
  • “Kids can ask their own questions and find their own answers.” – 1st grade teacher (Develop agency in our students at a YOUNG AGE!)
  • “It’s empowering!”

What is the most important thing on your mind right now about education?

At one point, Jay asked everyone in the room to voice “The most important thing on your mind right now about education?” Then he scanned the room and gave every audience member a chance to voice their thoughts.

  • Critical Thinking*
  • Agency*
  • Empathy*
  • Fostering Creativity*
  • Self Directed Learning*
  • Problem-Solving
  • Following own Interests
  • Joy
  • Relationships
  • Challenging
  • Ownership
  • Empowerment
  • Learning Through Failure
  • Student Voice
  • Equity

*Top Five Most Mentioned

You can’t hear this in the sound recording, but you can watch this vocal chorus about 12:00 in on the video below:

How/ When Should We Introduce this Concept of Invention Literacy?

  • “In some schools, the staff want it to be after school, but how is this equitable for all students?” – Steven Muniz
  • “It should be offered during different times during the school day and embedded in the curriculum because the “one size fits all” method doesn’t work for our students”- Leah Mann
  • “It has to be intentional, but teachers feel like they have to have ‘something come out.’ Instead, teachers have to re-think what they do and that might make some of our teachers uncomfortable. Even so, it should be seen as interwoven into our curriculum. (Other things do not have to go.)”
  • “It is critical that we see it as a key component of the curriculum, but if we only do it after school or as a special, then our kids see it as a nice thing, but not an essential thing. We have to make time for it and our kids need to see it as intentional and part of the critical work that we do. It’s not at the expense of the other things we do, this ties into everything and it’s the connecting piece.”
  • “We put a lot of energy into creating fake problems. Why not use real problems?”

“How Do We Build Fluency for Invention Literacy?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (8)

  • “Just because you’re learning to write, doesn’t mean you are going to be a writer. You don’t have to be an inventor, but do we need to be able to deconstruct and reconstruct our world?” – Jay Silver
  • “Is literacy actually finding out about what we don’t know?” – Jeff Branson
  • “Is there an invention literature? Can we read it? Can we discuss it? Can we view it? Enjoy it? Can we modify it? Will a culture grow up around inventiveness and the human made world and the definition of what is possible? In that culture, is it cool/ playable to invent?” – Jay Silver (listen to this on the recording about 30 min in.)

What/ Where is Invention Land? What is a feature of Invention Land?

Jay’s question here references Papert’s address to Congress where he ask Congress, “If you have 90% of people coming out of French classes, not really speaking French, do you say, ‘Maybe those people don’t have a mind for French? It’s not our fault.’ But then if you take those kids and you grow them up in France, they’ll all be able to speak French. So in a math class if only 10% of them feel like they are a math person, or is there a place? Like math land? Where we can grow them up to be mathematicians?”

Invention Literacy Core Convo (2)

  • “You’d have to have the mindsets and tools be just as important as the tools for reading, math, etc.”
  • “If we grow these habits of mind when they are young, kids can carry them on to middle school and high school.”
  • “There would need to be a need for it. You learn French in France because you need it to survive. Right now, they need English just to pass a course. There needs to be an authentic need for invention for it to catch on.”
  • “Invention land means there is a time built in, and there is support from admin and leadership where teachers can be inventors too and they get a chance to explore, play, and learn. Because they need to be comfortable with setting up the environment where students can flourish.” -Leah Mann
  • “There is a culture that needs to be passed on. I run workshops the same for teachers as I do for students. They need to experience the fun.” – Jay Silver
  • “In Inventionland students will all say ‘Yes and’ instead of the word ‘but’ so it will allow for the continuation of an idea rather than the stopping of an idea.”
  • “Teachers need to be allowed to play and learn and do these things in Invention Land so they will be inspired to allow students to do these things as well. Teachers have to be learners first.”
  • “The stuff our kids make, does not have to be stuff that they sell. Every kid does not have to grow up to be an inventor, but they can still learn the literacy of invention.” – Me
  • “You need the environment where it is safe to fail even at the upper admin level.”
  • “You have a conversation with materials, and the people around you.” – Jay Silver
  • “There is no magic path to invention. Just like there isn’t a magic path to writing.” – Me

If you’d like, you can actually listen to the whole core convo below: (However, since some participants did not use the microphone, you will not be able to hear them responding and will have a few minutes silence dispersed throughout the recording.)

Slides and Resources from our talk are available here.

The World Needs More Inventors

Another great session that discusses the importance of invention literacy and creative constraints was The World Needs More Inventors, Starting with Kids (Unfortunately I missed the session in person, but thanks to SXSWedu and Soundcloud, I was able to listen to it later. And you can too below!)

Let Kids Learn the Way They Want to Learn – No Judgment

One of the most astounding a-ha moments I had listening to this session was when Emily Pilloton asked, What is the balance between constraints and freedom? Are you giving them a kit, or are you saying go invent something?” (This conversation starts about 35 min in on the recording.)

Danielle Applestone responded: “It depends on if there is judgement involved. Are we judging kids who want to do kits? Or people who need a little more guide rails? Are we measuring results? I oppose judgment. It’s fine for people to say, I’d like to work on this thing, can you help me? Do we give people constraints or total freedom? Sometimes people need constraints because the world is infinite and I can’t picture all the possibilities. So some constraints are good to get started, but if someone is rolling? Just let them roll. The more you can stand back and say, ‘They’ll come to me if they need something.’ That’s more important than following LEGO instructions (but that is also a satisfying exploration in its own way.)”

Liam Nilson: “It’s like the infinite library paradox. If there is an infinite amount of different books to read, how would you decide what to read? Unless you are super invention literate to start with, it’s hard to look at your whole makerspace supply shelf and know where to start. Especially if there is some hidden judgment there….. Sometimes constraints can be interesting too. If you are doing something with a group, and say you want them to make houses of cardboard and you can’t use tape or glue. Then kids will work together to find interesting solutions to get around those constraints. Conversely, if they are going to get an F if they help their friend, then you won’t see them exchange those kinds of ideas.”

Emily Pilloton: “I appreciate when things feel so constrained, you have to wriggle your way out….I give my students this specific set of guidelines, so that inevitably they find ways to try and break those rules…I want to set up conditions where they (my students) are negotiating what rules are breakable and what rules aren’t…. Constraints can actually open the door to immense freedom.” (You should listen to this full anecdote about 40 min in.)

Personally, I appreciate this open and honest conversation about a grey area of making. And I think one of the most important points in this conversation is that we as positive educators should not be passing judgement on others. If a student wants to follow LEGO instructions, let them. If they want to explore materials and never make a final product, let them. To refer back to my last reflection, as Patrick Benfield says, “All making is valid.” That’s why it is important we continue to have these conversations with other educators.

Here are some of my other favorite quotes from this session!

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