Students on Team Stria have fun while doing the serious work of designing technologies to help the blind.

Last fall, Project Invent introduced a group of high school students to Jimmy, a 29-year-old man who recently became blind and was struggling with veering into traffic on his walks. These students took on the challenge of designing a solution to help blind people everywhere with the dangerous problem of veering. We didn’t tell them what to make – students decided what problem they wanted to tackle and how to best solve it.

 

These students, and many others in Project Invent, have already designed impactful technologies to address everything from social anxiety to sexual assault to PTSD. And behind every team’s inventions are stories of real people in their community.

In Project Invent, we empower young people to make an impact. Every student has ideas that can make a difference. However, they are rarely empowered to bring their ideas to life.

This situation is close to my heart. When I started college, I went in with the belief that creative ideas were only gifted to the select few, and I was not one of those few. A few months later, I was working on FingerReader, a camera mounted on a ring to help blind people read on-the-go through text-to-speech translation.

A hand wearing Fingerreader scans a page of text that is then read aloud to the blind user.

I had not gotten any smarter: I had merely gotten a unique opportunity to tackle an important problem.

However, the opportunities for young people to make real-world impact are far too scarce. After I started teaching in a high school makerspace, I realized that my previous defeatist beliefs were not unique to me. So many students believe they are consumers, but not creators, and that they can’t change the problems they see in the world. Since then, I have made it my mission to empower students with the confidence and skills to actively build the world they want to see. I started Project Invent to catalyze our next generation to build a better future. And we do that through making.

Making allows students to translate their ideas into reality: it literally allows them to hold their ideas in the palm of their hands. There are few experiences more empowering than that. Through making, students become confident that they can create anything. And when students make for social impact, they see that what they make can also change the world.

Imagine: when students create something that lights up at the wave of a hand, it feels magical.  But what if the light that turns on at the wave of a hand helps an aging individual make their way down the stairs safely in the dark? By grounding making in real-world people and problems, students see a new reason for why making matters.

Additionally, making for impact opens new doors into the makerspace. Students initially resistant to making become drawn to the idea of making a real impact. One previous student, Polina, came into the space for the first time as a senior. She didn’t see herself as a maker and saw no interest in the traditional offerings of robotics and 3D printing. However, as a soon-to-be college student, she was passionate about reducing sexual assault on college campuses. In Project Invent, she overcame her anxiety towards engineering to invent a smartwatch to help women easily alert their friends or police in dangerous situations. As someone who used to discourage herself, Polina shared that “Project Invent made me realize that I can indeed learn and do anything I set my mind to.” She is now attending Boston University and continuing to develop her product at their entrepreneurship center.

For the group of students tackling veering for the blind, they went on to found their own company, Stria, and designed a smart waistband to help prevent blind people from veering into dangerous traffic. In less than a year, their team of young makers won multiple awards, earned over $3,000, and were featured in multiple media outlets for their work. They are now filing for a patent and incorporating their business.

Morgan (left) and Emma (right) debug Unwind before Deno Day, our annual showcase at the Stanford d.school.

When students solve real problems through making, they learn not just maker skills, but also empathy, teamwork, effective communication, humility, and more. One student said that “Being a member of Project Invent has helped me grow in ways no class could teach me…I have learned how to work with a team in a professional setting while navigating real-life systems including marketing, business, and law.” When making is done to solve real-world problems, both maker and community benefit. We empower students to make a difference and we empower communities with the design they deserve. With the goal of inspiring youth to design a better world, we need to teach them that they have both the ability and responsibility to build a better, safer, more equitable future. And through Project Invent, we’ve found that lesson is best learned in the makerspace. In a space dedicated to making ideas into reality, there is no better setting for empowering students to make a change.

Excited to bring making for impact to your students? We just launched our curriculum, free for download, on our website. With 7 full lesson plans and 30+ tools from design thinking, engineering, and entrepreneurship, students can follow our process to start solving real problems in their community today.