Classroom Activities on Invention and Inventors


FreshPlans had the opportunity to interview inventor Douglas Hutchings, who was recently on the cover of Inventor’s Digest.  Dr. Hutchings has been responsible for two inventions: a new kind of solar panel  which makes solar energy much more affordable, and a website that helps people find special deals in their neighborhood.

Our conversation with Dr. Hutchings was a great starting point for classroom activities about inventors:

  • The solar solution is a process of making larger crystals that electrons can travel through better, creating more efficient solar panels that use fewer resources to create more energy. The deals site lets people find and redeem special deals more easily than other deal sites. In each case, Dr. Hutchings wasn’t creating something completely new, but instead was solving problems with existing technology. Use our “Think Like an Engineer” lesson plan to guide students through the process of coming up with an idea to solve a problem.
  • While both of the inventions Dr. Hutchings told us about solved problems, they also improved existing technologies. Many inventions started out as a way to make something else better, even if there were no specific problems with those items. Use our “Think About It” worksheet to brainstorm ways to improve things that already exist. Have students design their inventions with SketchUp or pencil and paper, making an art project of it.
  • One of the inventions addressed a serious problem. We have limited amount of fossil fuels available, and we’re using them up. We really need an inexpensive, efficient alternative. The other problem — deals sites are a lot of trouble to use — isn’t as serious a problem, but it’s still a problem. Challenge students to find examples of inventions that solved small problems and create poster board displays about their histories. Start them off with safety pins and Post-It Notes!
  • Inventions rarely start with a completely brand new idea. There would have been no TV without the telegraph and no xBox without pinball. The new solar panels Dr. Hutchings developed wouldn’t have been possible without earlier types of solar panels. Challenge students to build a family tree for an invention they find interesting.
  • Dr. Hutchings told us that the first problem inventors face is finding money to build their inventions. He suggested that an inventor could ask family members to invest, or find a customer who would pay for the cost of building the first products. His company received grants and prizes when As a class, brainstorm ways to raise funding for one or more of the inventions your class has imagined.
  • Dr. Hutchings also told us, “I think everyone has had a million dollar idea once in their lives.” He said it all comes down to who follows through on their great ideas. If you’re doing a unit on inventors, encourage students to keep track of their ideas. At the end of the unit, choose one or more ideas that might be practical. Use Trout Fishing in America’s lesson plan for their song “Science Fair” to get this concept across thoroughly. Encourage students to enter their ideas in contests like SIBA or Invent America. After all, Dr. Hutchings got funding for his solar invention while he was still a student.

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