"When my fourth graders were exploring the inventive process, we learned that some inventions came about accidentally and others were deliberately designed to solve problems," reports Wichita Falls, TX, teacher Linda Bishop. As avid gardeners and greenhouse growers, Linda's students were already natural problem solvers. So they decided to identify some of the gardening challenges they faced, then consider whether any inventions were in order. "As a class, we walked through our gardens and greenhouse and discussed problems that hampered our efforts -- getting rid of weeds, picking tall okra, supporting heavy tomato plants, carrying tools, and so on," describes Linda.
Each student selected one compelling growing problem, then they all worked in small groups to brainstorm possible solutions. Next, individuals worked with a parent or other adult to prepare a proposal for an invention that addressed his or her chosen problem. As students presented proposals, the class discussed whether there was a genuine need for each proposed invention, and helped one another modify plans.
"This science and technology project required students to delve into all subject areas," explains Linda. In social studies, students "applied" for patents for their inventions after studying how the U.S. patent system works. They explored different types of advertising techniques in language class, then had to apply the strategies to "advertise" their inventions. Math skills were honed as students drew detailed diagrams and figured prices for inventions based on expenses, labor, and demand.
As a culminating activity, the young inventors displayed and demonstrated their wares in the school foyer at an Invention Convention. The gala featured such innovations as a mesh cage to protect tomato fruits from insect damage; a sturdy PVC pipe stand to support fruit-laden tomato plants; toolbelts; an okra picker complete with an extension pole, cutting tool, and basket to catch the fruit; multipocketed gardening aprons; and several 3-in-1 tools.
As representatives from the school's business partners judged the inventions and advertising displays and passed out ribbons, no young problem solver went unrewarded. "Now that students have successfully figured out answers to gardening dilemmas, they're much more likely to see problems as challenges rather than obstacles," notes Linda.