Finding and Creating the Next Generation of Inventors

Why the Future of Invention, STEM, and Our Children Depends on Advancing Equity

By Tong Zhang, Executive Director of Oregon MESA

Note: All photos were taken at Oregon MESA events before COVID-19 social distancing was put into effect.

This has been a difficult year so far. If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that we as a society desperately need problem solvers.

The class of 2020 is graduating amid a crippling pandemic that kept them out of school for months, with most of them receiving their diplomas remotely. These graduates are facing a range of global issues like climate change, alongside more local issues like systemic inequality, institutional racism, and lack of access to economic mobility. All of these challenges have disproportionately affected our students and communities of color.

At the same time, these young folks are also the ones best suited to find the solutions. I’ve seen firsthand what students are capable of given the tools, skills, and confidence to help identify problems and tackle these challenges.

This has been my mission at the Oregon MESA (Mathematics, Engineering, Science, Achievement) program at Portland State University. Oregon MESA is part of a nationwide STEM equity coalition born out of the civil rights movement called MESA USA, and our central goal is to provide students from diverse backgrounds with opportunities to engage in invention by tackling real-world problems.

We need problem solvers with diverse lived experiences more than ever to tackle the medical, social, and economic challenges ahead.

For the last 35 years, Oregon MESA has been working in Portland-area high schools and middle schools to empower students underrepresented in STEM — students of color, girls, and students from low-income backgrounds — with the knowledge, skills, and connections to thrive in college and career paths, and to potentially see themselves as inventors. For too long our underrepresented students have been marginalized in the education system and ultimately are not given the opportunity to thrive in the economic system.

Over the past decade, we have engaged students through Invention Education — an approach to teaching that puts them in the driver’s seat. They begin with open-ended problems tied to a theme. Over the course of ten weeks, they use a human-centered, process-based methodology to come up with solutions. They learn to work with their fellow students, teacher advisors, and mentors from the community. And in normal times, they get to showcase their work in person in our annual design and prototype competition.

We recently wrapped this year’s competition, which we transformed into a virtual, three-day summit in response to COVID-19. And although our design challenge theme of “Health Heroes” was developed before the pandemic, it proved to be particularly prescient. Students were charged with going out into their communities to find medical professionals to interview about various challenges they face in their line of work. Then, from an empathy-based, user mindset, the students began to work on solving those challenges.

These issues took on a whole new light during a public health crisis. For example, health care workers try to minimize contact with surfaces to avoid spreading pathogens, but still must use their hands to perform small tasks like logging in to their computer. And there are larger systems issues, like tracking and managing blood supplies as donations increase during an emergency.

These are the types of problems that sometimes get overlooked, but can be just as vexing for health care professionals working on the front lines. Our students rose to the challenge, fueled by a sense of urgency and empathy. They developed prototypes such as shoes that are specially engineered to let workers log in to their computer with their feet. They also developed a blood donation tracker to help ensure that no donation is wasted, and a therapeutic skin ulcer reliever that helps prevent bedsores in bed-ridden patients.

To invent such impactful devices, students must develop a problem-solving mindset. They must also develop an ability to engage and empathize with diverse groups of people and professions in their own communities, and a belief that there is no challenge too small or large to address.

They must also have mentors and role models both inside and outside the classroom. One such mentor is Melanie Ramsey, who has been a middle school science teacher in North Portland for more than 30 years. As a teacher of color, it mattered to her greatly that students saw diversity in STEM, and so she became an early MESA Advisor and helped co-develop our invention curriculum.

And there’s Muhammad Rahman, who was a MESA student himself, and was inspired by seeing teachers that looked like him. Now he’s a middle school math teacher in East Portland and is helping create those opportunities for his own students. “Sometimes, students don’t know that those opportunities are out there,” he says. “It’s right there, but they just don’t have the resource to connect with it.”

That includes introducing students to mentors in their community and in local businesses. Our goal at Oregon MESA is to help make those connections and inspire diverse groups of students to see themselves as potential leaders in STEM fields. Astonishing growth occurs as students gain confidence through seeing their work quickly move from big, open-ended problems to tangible solutions that are designed to improve lives.

If we can support these students and help them build broader connections in a STEM and innovation ecosystem, we can ensure that the enormous potential of these talented individuals is not lost. According to a recent longitudinal evaluation from Education Northwest, participation in Oregon MESA programming has had a significant impact on student achievement. Researchers tracked more than 400 MESA students over 10 years and found that 87 percent of them graduated from high school in four years, a significant increase from the 73 percent of the comparison group.

I believe that these kinds of educational experiences are crucial to inspiring students to engage with STEM and equipping them with the tools they need to succeed. Ultimately it can help ensure that the STEM fields are more reflective of the population at large. By advancing equity and inclusion at an early age, we can create a new generation of inventors that see and solve problems across a diverse landscape.

Because we need them. When the leaders, innovators, and problem solvers in our society reflect the rich diversity of our community, it will not only help create a more just world, but also a more economically robust one. And in Oregon and throughout the country, our communities will all be stronger for it.

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