Inventing: A Way to Help the World
“What bounty greater than this that science should be considered as an act of worship and art as service to the Kingdom of God?” — ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
You and your friends want to work on a service project that can help others and solve a real-world problem. You want to build something innovative that others can use to make their lives better. You want to invent! Where do you start?
Look for a Problem
In 2011, Alexis Lewis, then 12 years old, was looking for a problem to solve. At that time, a famine in Somalia, Africa, was at its peak. She heard about the thousands of people who left their homes in search of food. Taking their children and what belongings they could carry, they walked for weeks to find relief. Some parents had no choice but to leave behind children they could not carry, who were too young or too weak for the journey.
Alexis says, “It was a very real problem, and I knew there was a simple solution out there, so I set to work. As I saw it, if I knew I could help with minimal effort but didn’t, I would be doing something terrible; it would be negligence with terrible consequences.”
Alexis invented a simple device for basic transportation—a rescue travois. A travois, or drag sled, was used by American Indians to carry cargo. It had two long poles with a platform or netting suspended between them. The ends of the poles dragged along the ground, and the other ends were pulled by a dog or horse.
Research the Needs
Alexis researched how people live in impoverished rural regions of Africa, and she updated the travois to meet their needs. They don’t have horses, so she designed a travois that a person could pull using a belt around their waist. The belt keeps their hands are free, avoids tiring their arms on a long journey, and doesn’t interfere with the cloth slings that African women often use to carry their babies. Native materials such as bamboo, which is light, strong, and plentiful, can be used for the poles. And since people supply the power, wheels rolling on the ground replace the dragging poles, to lighten the load.
Alexis received much recognition for her invention, and was awarded a U.S. patent on her design. You can take a look at a 3D image of the invention in the window below (Move mouse while pressing mouse button to rotate. Use scroll wheel or arrow keys to zoom).
What Does It Take to Be an Inventor?
You don’t have to be a genius to be an inventor. But there are some virtues you can develop and steps you can take that will help.
- Develop a passion for problem-solving.
Inventing, especially as a service, is solving a problem. There may be many setbacks or false starts, and having a love for solving problems will help you to persevere. “Don’t be afraid to have wrong ideas,” says Alexis. “Very rarely do we find the solution to real-world problems without a bit (or a wealth) of guesswork in the early stages.”
- Learn and understand the basics.
Depending on what your invention needs to do, there are basic principles of mechanics, physics, or chemistry that apply. They can help you tell a useful idea from an impractical one, or figure out how to overcome setbacks.
- Stay curious and open-minded about the world around you.
Many inventions take things the inventors already knew about and combine them in new ways. Alexis’s invention came from combining ideas like how a travois was used by American Indians, and how a simple wheel and axle work. Learning about different ideas and making these connections in your mind is a big part of inventing.
- Learn to work well with others.
In describing help she gets for her inventions, Alexis says, “Humans tend to work best in teams, at least in part because a single perspective will often get stuck on a problem that another perspective might see differently.”
Steps to a Useful Invention
There are many paths you can take in creating a specific invention. Here are some suggested steps from my experience inventing to solve problems at NASA.
- Define the problem you want to solve.
For Alexis’s invention, she knew that the problem was helping refugees move themselves and their belongings to a safer place.
- Think of ideas to solve the problem—a lot of them!
This step is called brainstorming. Alexis says, “While logic and scientific accuracy are important to invention, often the biggest ideas come from churning through a boatload of mildly crazy ideas until you find one that sticks.” But not all ideas will work or be practical, so you need the next step.
- Come up with “gates” that ideas must pass through so the impractical ideas can be thrown out.
If you have a basic understanding of how things work, you can create “gates” in your mind to quickly throw out ideas that will not work or will take too much effort to make work. Then you can focus on a few ideas that have a chance to solve the problem. For example, a gate for Alexis’s ideas may have been that the materials needed to be inexpensive and readily available in Somalia.
- Build a prototype of your invention.
When an idea has passed through all of your gates, you still can’t be sure it will solve the problem. When you build a prototype—a working model of the invention—you learn things you hadn’t thought of before. You also find out about shortcomings that guide you to make changes.
Often, engineers use computer models to predict how an invention could work. But they may later find that they have no way to build it, or that they forgot something important in their computer models and the invention won’t solve the problem. Actually building the invention is the only way to find this out. Alexis’s rescue travois combined the traditional travois and the wheel and axle in a new way. She learned from prototypes she built, and she improved the invention.
If you want to have your invention supported by others, nothing works better than showing it in action.
Inventing can be a fun and practical way to serve humanity. Alexis says, “Remember, you are expressing your creativity first, not your arithmetic skills.” So where will your creativity lead you and what inventions can you create on your path of service?
Dr. Steve Scotti is Brilliant Star’s STEM Education Advisor and a research engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, U.S. He works to develop lighter, stronger materials and structures for aircraft and spacecraft. Watching the first astronaut launched into space inspired his interest in space exploration, and he enjoys sharing his enthusiasm about science and space with kids.
Alexis Lewis is now 18 years old and recently graduated from high school. She will begin her freshman year at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Fall 2018. If you are interested in learning more about Alexis and her inventions, you can visit her website at www.alexislewisinventor.me
STEM190 Science135 Inventing2 Service177 Community83 Creativity155 Critical Thinking1 Youth15 Problem-solving14 Africa34 DrScotti25