In the past, my technology class eagerly participated in every conceivable invention competition available. As a technology educator, I believe that such competitions offer structured guidance for students in an era when innovative teaching often requires crafting a unique curriculum. Engaging in these types of competitions aligns with the terminology used in tech/STEM classes. As with many STEM classrooms, entering the world of competitions helps students be consistent with much of the vocabulary in engineering and technology lessons.
There was a moment, however, when I started to ask my students, “Who owns the work you submit to these competitions?” The moment came when some students and I learned the hard way that by signing up for the competition, we had basically signed away the students’ rights to their work—the company took ownership.
After a long search, I realized the importance of connecting intellectual property (IP) education into the design thinking process. In my exploration, I found a vibrant community of educators who had successfully integrated intellectual property lessons into diverse STEM programs—from STEAM to convergence education, maker education, innovation, entrepreneurship, and computer science programming.
To initiate these lessons, I began by asking students to identify U.S. inventors with known patents. For instance, my second-grade students used United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Inventor Collectible Trading Cards as inspiration, facilitated by a match game from online invention and intellectual property education platform EquIP HQ. Teachers who have students create their own designs through invention challenges may want to become aware of intellectual property education to better inform their students on how to protect their creations long term and what the protection process might look like. It’s important for InventEd leaders to be conscious of the four types of intellectual property they can integrate into their lessons: patents, trademarks, copyright, and trade secrets.
When introducing patents to students, we’re really discussing the design of an invention. Patents are the exclusive rights granted for an invention. One of the most interesting ways to compare student designs is to ask students to find a product similar to what they’re trying to design to see if there’s already a patent owner or if they can build on the idea to create something new.
My fifth graders used Google Patents to find flying cars but ended up realizing that each individual part of a vehicle could be a separate patent. This led to a deeper discussion on what parts of the invention an inventor actually owns and what parts they’re borrowing from other inventors.
Another way to introduce patents is to have students think about the process that a person or team has to go through to have a patent become their own. My fourth-grade classes enjoyed playing Patent Quest in teams, which puts players in the shoes of someone who is filing a patent by looking at their drawings, claims (research) budget to pay for the patent, and more. Older students can pretend to act as a patent examiner and play Patent Sensei, which compares original and similar patent submissions.
The second major part of intellectual property education is trademarks. A trademark is a word, symbol, phrase, or design used to represent a product. During my after-school design thinking club, there’s usually a member of the team who wants to work more on the marketing than the design of the product. Conversations about trademarks generally apply to those student logos, and this makes a great connection.
Depending on the elementary age of the student, the logos can sometimes look like mimics of actual product logos. The most relatable trademarks are well-known images such as the Coca-Cola logo or the Nike Swoosh. Lessons distinguishing the differences between a patent and a trademark are important because teams love a good symbol to represent their projects. My third-grade students really enjoy the Trademark Game offered by ThinkFun; or take a look at the Trademark Activity book, available at USPTO Kids, which enables students to compare logos.
Third, teachers can explore copyright. Copyright generally refers to music, written works, and stage work. When my fourth-grade students are coding music in Scratch or using their Dash Xylophone attachments as part of my school’s Festival of the Arts, we integrate the copyright conversation into digital citizenship.
Copyright is easy to fit into many types of digital responsibility lessons, as many standards have a prong regarding citing your sources. Sites like copyrightandcreativity.org can provide a great framework for conversations on copyright, which lend themselves nicely to research skills like giving credit and citations. Older students may enjoy bits from CopyrightUser.org, which offers mature students a bit of Sherlock Holmes–type sleuthing.
Lastly, intellectual property education includes trade secrets. The most relatable trade secrets are the ones we see in commercials such as a secret baked beans recipe or a certain recipe for crispy chicken. Trade secrets can come into play when choosing careers. Ask your students, “When an invention is created at a company and the inventor moves to work elsewhere, can they take their intellectual property rights with them? Or is what they developed considered a trade secret?” Certain steps are required for an item to become a trade secret, and middle school students might enjoy an introduction to the Trade Secret board game.
Are your students asking where all of these potential protections come from? There’s a great connection to social science lessons in U.S. History. For my fifth-grade students who were studying the Constitutional Convention in social studies, we discussed how important the rights of authors and inventors are and how they receive exclusive rights for their respective writings and discoveries from the Constitution. (Teachers can find this in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 8.) Many may find it interesting to learn that President George Washington signed patents until the USPTO was better organized. Another fun American history fact is that the only president to hold a patent was Abraham Lincoln.
The importance of educating students on who owns their creations has long-term benefits for their designs. If you’re ready to take a deeper dive to learn more about intellectual property education, start at the free National Summer Teacher Institute offered every July by the USPTO Office of Education. This program goes in depth into the definitions of intellectual property and offers terrific experiences with educators from all over the United States also looking to provide their students with connections between their designs and protections with hands-on lesson plans that are usable the next day.
Another resource is the Master Teacher of Invention and Intellectual Property Education Program for your region. For educators embarking on invention challenges, it’s critical to be familiar with intellectual property education. This equips students with the knowledge to safeguard their creations and acquaints them with the protection tools.
By inspiring our next generation of inventors to harness their own power of invention through IP and invention education, we are paving the way for a brighter and more inventive future for all.