George Lucas Educational Foundation
Maker Education

Teaching Middle Schoolers to Patent Their Creations

See what the students in one maker ed program learned by working through the patent process.

Cartoon people plug in a lightbulb.
Cartoon people plug in a lightbulb.

Did you know that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a significant collection of tools and resources designed to support young entrepreneurs in school? No? We didn’t either, until the good folks at the Maker Ed organization introduced us to representatives from the USPTO at the National Maker Faire in Washington, DC, in June 2016.

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Several of my students (and their parents) and I met Joyce Ward, the USPTO’s director of education and outreach, at the Maker Educator Social last summer. Our conversations led to an opportunity for us to present about our program at the USPTO’s National Summer Teacher Institute in July.  Back then, we’d only just begun exploring the USPTO’s resources, and today, more than eight months later, we’re still using them and regularly discovering more new tools that can help us.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that patents, copyrights, and intellectual property are immensely complex topics—especially for students. We’re struggling a bit, to be honest. In this post, I’ll share what we’ve learned, what it means for our program, and how we’re using the USPTO’s resources with other tools to inspire entrepreneurship and innovation.

But first, let’s talk about the USPTO’s solid collection of resources for educators at all levels. These include ready-to-use lessons and reference materials, classroom art, projects, videos, and interactive tools. The mechanical grasper is a personal favorite of ours. It’s a fun and useful activity for kids of nearly all ages (and adults too). Another resource worth pointing out is the USPTO's directory, which is a great way to find public libraries and other facilities that are available to help students conduct research outside of school.

By far the best resource we’ve found at the USPTO isn’t electronic, though—it’s the personal assistance we’ve gotten from Dr. Jorge Valdes, an USPTO education program adviser dedicated to helping schools and programs like ours get much-needed support.

Dr. Valdes is also a science teacher at Bridgewater-Raritan High School in Bridgewater, New Jersey, and has been a tremendous help to our students (and to me too). He has generously made time to hold multiple videoconference sessions with us, to present and discuss the use of resources like the Business Model Canvas, to point us in the direction of powerful tools like TRIZ and TM-Rex, and to recommend books like Value Proposition Design: How to Create Products and Services Customers Want. Because Dr. Valdes is an active classroom teacher and a resource at the USPTO, he has a real appreciation of the challenges we’re facing.

As one example, Dr. Valdes recently videoconferenced with our Resident Entrepreneurs, teams of students that formed last year during our seventh-grade capstone activity in our Digital Shop in partnership with Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. The design project stemmed from the question, “How might we make hospitals less scary for children?” Although the project officially ended last year with a celebration and presentation, the kids have opted to continue working on their projects into this school year.

During the videoconference, Dr. Valdes listened intently to the project teams as they discussed their ideas, and he asked questions about their processes, assumptions, data gathering, and prototypes. While it might seem ambitious to presume these eighth graders’ ideas will result in patentable products, we’re working hard to give them every opportunity to try. Dr. Valdes walked them through the basic process of getting a patent (he holds more than 30), and we collectively determined that the teams would undertake two key next steps:

  • Conduct patent searches, using either Google Patents or the USPTO’s Patent Full-Text Databases, to determine if any products exist that are similar to those the students have proposed; and
  • Obtain real data to determine and document why hospitals need to be less scary for kids.

The patent searching went quickly and yielded little in the way of similar products, so our attention turned to data gathering.

We are now planning to conduct a series of focus groups designed to get kids (and parents) talking about their hospital experiences to find out what they found frightening. This data will then be anonymized, aggregated, and reviewed with Dr. Valdes. Although our sample size will be small, the process will be robust, and teams will have established a baseline of data to support their continuing work.

If it sounds like we are early in this process, it’s because we are. But connecting with the USPTO has definitely helped us see how the patent process works, and has also resulted in our realizing that we need to take a few steps back before we can move forward. We’ve never done this before, and we’re all learning as we go along. But isn’t that what school is all about?

Thank you for all of your support, USPTO. We look forward to rest of the adventure ahead!

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