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A Very Bright Idea

By Sean Cavanagh — March 02, 2009 9 min read
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The inventors at Clarksburg High School are perfectly willing to tell you what they’re doing. What they won’t tell you is how exactly they’re doing it.

Twice a week, 10 members of the high school’s Coyote Inventors Club gather in a second-floor computer lab to peck away at building a deceptively simple device: a cable that lights up on contact, thus making it easier to find amid the tangled rat’s nest of wires behind most computers.

Their work requires persistence, group cooperation, applied math and science skills—and, when it comes to the precise design of their product, a commitment to keeping some things secret.

The Clarksburg group is one of 16 high school teams chosen to participate in a nationwide grant program called “the InvenTeams initiative,” which sponsors students’ efforts to build scientific and technological devices of their own creation. The goal is to stoke a passion for science among students, and to nourish scientific inventiveness that will lead them to even greater intellectual and entrepreneurial heights as they advance to college and the workforce.

Students work on a new prototype for the Torch Cord. They’ve gone through five previous versions of the device.

At Clarksburg High School, northwest of Washington, the students hope to take their invention—dubbed the “Torch Cord"—several steps further.

Their goal for their device is to secure a patent, the basic legal document that makes their product their own and forbids others from making, using, or selling it without permission.

The students have an in-house counsel guiding them in that process. Paul Koda, a Clarksburg High School chemistry teacher and one of the InvenTeam’s adult sponsors, is a licensed patent lawyer who left the profession for the classroom four years ago. In addition to helping guide their work, he has cautioned them against disclosing too much to classmates, the news media—even parents—about the exact mechanics of the Torch Cord, in the hope of increasing their odds of securing a patent.

The process of invention, and the discipline needed to carry the idea from conception to patenting, is enhancing the students’ understanding of science and its uses, Mr. Koda argues.

They’re not wasting time “going down a path that won’t bear fruit,” the teacher explains. Students “can pick out a better path,” and become “a better scientist,” he said. “You say, ‘On my next invention, I have a sense that’s going to work.’ You peel away the chaff.”

Executing an Idea

The nationwide InvenTeams venture is run by the Lemelson-MIT program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., an organization that promotes the power of scientific and technological invention among students and the public at large. The InvenTeams effort awards grants of up to $10,000 apiece to schools to work on their inventions; it receives about 100 applications per year. The Lemelson-MIT program is named after the late Jerome Lemelson, a prolific inventor of mechanized industrial tools, video-filing systems, and other breakthroughs.

The Clarksburg High School group would not be the first InvenTeam to attempt to put a legal stamp on its scientific creation. A handful of past InvenTeams school groups have applied for patents with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since the program’s inception in 2002, said Joshua Schuler, the executive director of Lemelson-MIT.

Paul Koda, a patent lawyer who now teaches chemistry at Clarksburg High, advises InvenTeam members on the best solution to building a smaller prototype. His colleague Sarah Costlow is the team’s other adult sponsor.

While it pleases Mr. Schuler when teams take that initiative, patenting is secondary to the overall mission, which is to cultivate a love and deeper grasp of science, he noted. Scientific invention often means applying knowledge in one area and leapfrogging to solve an unrelated problem; that process challenges, and engages, teenagers in ways that traditional in-class activities do not, he said.

“It can get them to drill down deeper into scientific principles and mathematics, because now they have a tangible reason to know, ‘Why does this equation work?’” Mr. Schuler said. “Why does this scientific equation apply? Why should I be interested?”

Many grant programs and competitions, sponsored by private industries, philanthropies, and universities, challenge individual students to use invention, in robotics, engineering, and other areas. Schools see these programs as a means to nurture an interest in science in students who might otherwise tune it out, and to push supremely gifted students to demand more of themselves.

Mr. Koda, after learning that his school had received a $9,900 grant from Lemelson-MIT, had no difficulty rounding up students interested in the InvenTeam undertaking. Drawing from the Coyote Inventors Club—a larger group of inventors at Clarksburg High—he quickly found 10 volunteers to take part in the special InvenTeam project. They began work last fall.

Originally, the group had a list of about 120 possible ideas for inventions, Mr. Koda recalled. One was a ruler that expanded proportionally to meet different measurement needs. Another was a patch, roughly the size of a bandage, that could be put on an infant to glean medical information. Eventually, they settled on the light-up cord.

The team typically meets after school in a computer room to work on the device, share ideas, and report progress. Members e-mail and phone each other. They keep a detailed notebook with information on the Torch Cord’s design, the contents of which they guard closely.

Ian Grissom demonstrates the first working prototype of the team’s Torch Cord, a cable that lights up on contact, which makes it easier to find a cord amid the tangled rat’s nest found behind most computers.

Discretion and Nondisclosure

Each of the team members has a distinct role. Alex Ivanov, 16, is one of its engineers. He’s also the one who came up with the original idea for the cable, which, if their invention bears fruit, would make him a sort of Alexander Graham Bell of the Torch Cord.

The teenager’s inspiration was born of frustration. He owned a big, bulky desktop computer at home, and grew tired of banging his head every time he climbed under his table to untangle the wires running between the monitor, the CPU, the keyboard, the mouse, and so on.

“It made life a hassle,” Mr. Ivanov recalled.

His proposed solution was to create a cord that glowed to the touch. He brought it to the team, which refined the idea and decided to move forward.

They also agreed, at Mr. Koda’s urging, to proceed discreetly. Team members, parents, and anyone else who is given privileged information about the Torch Cord is asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement drafted by the Coyote Inventors Club. They agree not to discuss their “thoughts, ideas, and inventions with anyone else” who has not signed the agreement. The form is used for other Coyote Inventors Club projects, too.

Those rules do not prevent team members from describing the device or their overall goals. Their standing rule is that they can disclose “what it is we’re doing, but not how it is we’re doing it,” as Mr. Koda puts it.

Ian Grissom, 16, an engineer for the squad, records the materials and process used to create one of the team’s prototypes.

The secrecy is warranted, the teacher says, because he believes the team has a realistic chance to patent the device. Each student could potentially receive money from the device, if it is commercialized after patenting, he said.

Teenagers’ ability to innovate should not be underestimated, Mr. Koda said. He notes that many universities have offices of technology transfer, which allow scientific breakthroughs in academia to move quickly into the commercial sector, and ensure that university researchers receive credit. He would like to establish a high school office of tech transfer at Clarksburg High School.

The group’s goal is “to make its mark in history,” said Shrey Tarpara, 17, the team leader of the InvenTeam. “High school is something, but filing a patent gives you an idea of what life really is.”

More than 495,000 applications for patents were filed in fiscal 2008, up from 148,000 two decades ago, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, with the popular categories for submissions including electrical, mechanical, chemical, and computer-technology devices, said Jennifer Rankin Byrne, a spokeswoman for the office. The approval rate for applications, however, has fallen, from more than 70 percent in 2000 to about 40 percent today. That decline can probably be attributed to both the steep rise in applications and increasingly rigorous standards adopted by the office, she said.

The basic rule for whether something can be patented is that it is “new, nonobvious, and useful,” according to the federal office. Processes and machines are eligible; laws of nature, physical phenomena, and abstract things not. Nonuseful things don’t qualify; the patent office cites a “perpetual motion machine” as an example of one such useless thing.

The office hasn’t tracked the number of high school students who have applied for patents, Ms. Rankin Byrne said, though anecdotally, office staff members believe it’s far more common for college and graduate-level students to apply.

Broad Application

For Clarksburg’s InvenTeam, the challenges on the road to invention have become clear over the past few months. Many everyday devices, such as calculators and iPods, are touch-sensitive. But turning a cable, which is supposed to be bent, twisted, and stretched, into a touch-sensitive object is more difficult, the group soon realized.

The team has produced five previous designs for the Torch Cord. The current, sixth version is a moderately thick cable, wrapped in what looks like black electrical tape. A thin wire is wrapped around its entire length. When the cord is touched, the thin wire glows a bright green. As for what goes on inside the cord itself, team members politely decline to say. (The curious can view the team’s Internet site.)

Paul Koda tries to find a solution for constructing the cord with Anik Saha, one of 10 members of InvenTeam, which is part of the school’s Coyote Inventors Club.

In theory, a light-up cord would not only help ensnared PC users, but also workers who deal with longer, more labyrinthine cord entanglements, from engineers to custodians, working in buildings or with complex machinery.

One of the students’ biggest challenges is figuring out what equipment they need to support the Touch Cord, and how to get it. Sometimes, they research materials online. They have also asked for donations from companies, such as global manufacturing giant Tyco International, though they have been careful not to reveal too much about their project.

“We’re not IBM,” Mr. Ivanov said. “They can have something manufactured down to a simple [part]. We have to make it.”

Steps to Obtaining a Patent

Experts recommend a few basic steps to filing a patent application without a lawyer:

1. Keep a detailed record of your invention. Record every step of the invention process in a notebook, giving diagrams and modifications, saying how you came up with it. Sign and date entries; have witnesses sign and date them, too.

2. Make sure your invention qualifies. You can’t simply patent an idea. You must be able to show how it works and that it is new.

3. Weigh the commercial potential of your invention. It costs roughly $1,500 to file a patent. Before you begin the process, research the market and decide whether it’s worth the cost.

4. Conduct a thorough patent search. Search scientific and technical journals and other sources to determine if your invention is new.

SOURCE: NOLO, publisher of business and legal tools

To overcome those hurdles, each of the 10 InvenTeam members has a specific assignment. In addition to Mr. Ivanov and Mr. Tarpara, Ian Grissom serves as an engineer; Michael Goodier is content-development specialist, whose duties include honing the group’s Internet site; Justin Roth is the media and public relations manager; Eric Hong and Anik Saha are public relations representatives; Elysa Marchicelli is budget coordinator; and Christie Opiekun is media-contact coordinator.

The team’s budget manager is Micaela Larson. Like many of her teammates, the junior, whose father is an engineer at defense contractor Northrup Grumman Corp., has a strong interest in science. She is leaning toward studying premedicine or engineering in college.

Her current duties require her to track the group’s spending, keep an inventory of equipment, and press her teammates to turn in receipts.

“I liked the organizational aspect of it,” Ms. Larson, 16, said of the project. When she heard about the InvenTeam project, “I begged Mr. Koda to take part,” she said.

Many of her teammates, like Mr. Ivanov, say guiding an invention from raw idea to completed project, possibly worthy of a patent, has changed how they look at science. His academic schedule this year includes several Advanced Placement and honors classes, but InvenTeam challenges him in new ways.

“When I first started out, I couldn’t see the possibility of it,” Mr. Ivanov said of the Torch Cord. “It’s opened my eyes to the things that people need.” The teenager, who spent his childhood in both Russia and the United States, isn’t sure where he will go to college, what he will major in, or how he’ll eventually make a living. But he has a few ideas.

“I’m not going to be the doctor or the office worker,” Mr. Ivanov predicted. “I’ll be the guy who sits in his basement and invents things.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, at www.kauffman.org.
A version of this article appeared in the March 04, 2009 edition of Education Week as A Very Bright Idea

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