Inventive Differentiation

Fall 1999 Masthead

Julie Rossbach
Wallingford Public Schools
Wallingford, CT

Young minds are full of promise and creativity. Many educators have chosen to capitalize on these characteristics by devising curricula based on the process of inventing. Organizing “young inventors workshops” or Invention Conventions provides students with a creative outlet that strengthens skills such as problem solving, critical thinking, and research skills. These activities also benefit the school community by providing a catalyst for innovation and social contributions.

Organizers of such events must remember that although student participants are selected on the basis of common interest, it remains imperative that such commonalties don’t overshadow the need for differentiation. Differentiation can be achieved through the use of technology, extension activities such as researching a specific invention, studying an inventor of interest, or investigating the impact of certain inventions on society. These options will create meaningful experiences for young inventors as well as their peers.

What Is An Invention Convention?

Just inside the door, you descend a few steps and find yourself in the midst of a sea of people. This is no ordinary crowd; children wide-eyed and nervous flanked by harried adults toting scads of paperwork and odd contraptions. Youngsters and their guardians queue up to receive directions, then are directed through a set of blue double doors off to the right, “tchatchke” in hand. What awaits them inside is nothing short of awe-inspiring!

Welcome to the opening hours of an Invention Convention. These events are state-wide competitions for students in grades K-12 who created original inventions that were subject to school-wide judging. Last year’s Connecticut Convention included over 450 students from across Connecticut with inventions in categories ranging from safety devices to new applications and adaptations of technology.

While this event is open to any student with both an interest in inventing and the task commitment to see a project to completion, students displaying gifted behaviors are prime candidates for participation. There are a number of different competitions at state and national levels, each with a common goal: to stimulate and support the development and application of creative and critical thinking to real-world problem solving. These competitions are sponsored by a variety of organizations, from educational foundations to civic-minded purveyors of high technology.

But where do you go with an exceptional student who performs the various activities included in the competition literature, then looks at you as if to say “Now what?” Many teachers realize how important it is to differentiate instruction within the classroom, according to criteria such as interest, prior knowledge, ability, or final product. But what do you do with instructional units from invention organizations that are already interest-based? Though generally well-designed, materials provided by these organizations are not without their shortcomings. Teachers should be encouraged to tailor the experience to students’ needs and interests.

Why Differentiate a Unit on Invention?

Well, why not? In an ideal world all units of instruction, regardless of content, would be differentiated. A problem that teachers often run into is fueled by the mistaken belief that if you’re going to differentiate a unit, you must change every single facet of it, in every conceivable manner. As nearly impossible (and most certainly impractical) as it would be to include every essential vitamin and mineral in processed foods, so it is for differentiation strategies. Teachers should alter lesson content, process, and/or product according to unit objectives and students’ learning characteristics. If a segment of the unit meets learner needs, then one should focus time and energy on the sections that truly need to be reworked. Since the unit is already differentiated according to interest and final product, consider customizing it according to ability, prior knowledge, or teaching method. For instance, an ambitious teacher could construct a simulation activity wherein student inventors were participants in an apprenticeship to Thomas Edison in his Menlo Park, NJ laboratory, experiencing the magnitude of this great inventor’s fervor.

Inventing as a school activity can be a great “equalizer.” Students of all levels work toward the common goal of realizing their creative potential. Students who enjoy writing may be surprised by the challenge of expressing their ideas in a graphic format. Students who are master model-makers may find the task of using words to describe their ideas truly daunting. Differentiation is the single most effective means of addressing various levels of comprehension and performance.

The materials from the Connecticut Invention Convention, Invent America!, and other organizations serve as guidelines for teachers who organize competitions within their school. These materials contain basic lesson plans and suggestions for extension activities. One might consider them pre-differentiated, but this is not always the case. Since competition is not limited to students with high abilities, classroom teachers or convention facilitators should be ready to create their own extensions or support activities to meet students’ needs.

“Do I Have to Do This Again?”

For those capable students who have already been exposed to the invention process (through research or participation in activities), the redundancy of many units’ initial stages, in particular, is at best dull, at worst a threat to their creativity and interest level. While the unit may not be a formal part of the curriculum and therefore relegated to the elusive “spare time,” some form of preassessment is useful in determining how to allocate student time.

Preassessment can come in many forms. For instance, a “KWL” chart (“What do I already know? What do I want to know? What do I need to learn?”) enables students to indicate those things to which they’ve had exposure, as well as areas that may require more coverage. It will also help as a reminder of originally interesting ideas for those students undertaking a more intensive research-based project. Using a numeric scale to rate the difficulty of certain inventive tasks helps teachers to determine weaknesses and allows students to pursue strength areas. Students requiring a greater level of support can proceed with the prescribed creativity exercises outlined in many invention materials, such as SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Uses, Eliminate, Rearrange, Eberle, 1972). Those for whom this initial instruction is unnecessary may proceed to activities that involve different aspects of their creative abilities, such as new applications for previously learned techniques, or alternative scenarios in which they may be applied.

“Can I Do It My Way?”

Preassessment is great, just as long as you take it to heart. Once you recognize the diversity among your students, you then must adjust your objectives and instructional techniques. Being flexible in what you want your students to accomplish also requires you to be flexible about their resources. It is important that you allow students to use whatever media are appropriate to their learning and expression styles and your instructional goals.

Who says that the objective behind inventing must be the same for every student? Although every invention unit aims to capitalize on students’ creativity and introduce them to creative problem solving and critical thinking, objectives should go further. Do you want your students to have an opportunity to work with a mentor? Do you feel some must be challenged to produce an invention that has social significance? Are there students for whom mere completion of the task is the “real” desired outcome? There may be as many underlying objectives for students’ participation in the activities as there are fingers on their hands. Units on invention can often be equalizing among heterogeneous student populations.

Teachers should be willing to utilize a multitude of media, especially during the initial phases of instruction. Individual or small group research on specific famous inventors (or the creators of famous inventions) is popular and students should be allowed to use more than just print resources for their research. If space and time permit, set up a listening or viewing station accessible by all students at various times during the day. Stock it with videos and/or recordings of resources, primary ones if at all possible. Check out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Invention Dimension web site for a list of links to excellent multimedia resources, including sites featuring female inventors and inventors of color. While reading an inventor’s own words is meaningful, hearing the voice or seeing the person delivering these words is absolutely powerful.

Various computer programs assist students with different parts of the invention experience. The Incredible Machine and The Incredible Machine 2 (Jeff Tunnell Publications, 1994a, 1994b) are two pieces of software that present students with a solution that requires a Rube Goldberg-esque approach. Using software such as Inspiration (Inspiration Software, 1997) to guide students’ thinking with graphic organizers helps them to focus on ideas rather than struggle with a way of recording them on paper.

“Is There an Inventor Like Me?”

Pick up a typical children’s book on invention and you will find a list of inventors that always seems to include such noteworthy individuals as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, etc. Rarely do you find a list that includes a member of another ethnic group or a female. Regardless of your classroom demographics, it’s important to introduce students to a variety of inventors, not just those falling within the category of the well-known.

How many students realize that aside from Dr. George Washington Carver and his famous experiments with peanuts, there exists a cadre of inventors of color whose achievements are as diverse and significant as their White male counterparts? An African American inventor has impacted every individual who has ridden on an electric train or gotten a permanent wave. The Chemistry library at Louisiana State University has set up a bibliography of Black inventors that may be accessed at It is very important to have balance in the study of inventors, because no one person or group has a monopoly on creativity or ingenuity.

Often the specific needs of girls are overlooked when developing and implementing units on mathematics and science. This can be true again when considering a unit on invention, as women inventors are traditionally underrepresented in the related literature. Both girls and boys should be exposed to women inventors and the ingenious and important contributions they have made to modern society. Up until the late 19th century, the vast majority of inventions created by women dealt with improving upon the conditions found within the household. As time progressed, women’s contributions diversified into the fields of medicine, engineering, chemistry, computer science, and many other areas. We have women to thank for the invention of an at-home test for diabetes (Helen Murray Free) as well as the COBOL computer language (Grace Murray Hopper). It’s important for students to focus on some relative unknowns. Encourage them to choose an invention of particular interest and trace its roots or to focus on an inventor who isn’t as well known as most, and investigate the impact on his or her field.

How Do You Marry Technology and Invention?

How short-sighted it would be to discuss a unit on the invention process and neglect to mention technology. It’s both the result of and impetus for invention! Aside from the usual application of word processing, technology can and should play a significant role in how a student undertakes his or her project.

For starters, public and school libraries nationwide are moving toward replacing their large drawer-filled card catalogs with computer terminals that allow for streamlined, speedy searches for specific materials. These terminals require specialized, albeit simple, knowledge to operate them, skills which students can easily master. The nice thing about this is that the Boolean search techniques (strings of search terms separated by the words AND, OR, or NOT) used with library catalogs are the same techniques that may be used to search the World Wide Web. Students mastering the use of the library’s terminals can generalize their search skills to the broader realm of the Internet.

One resource that cannot be overlooked is the World Wide Web. With a few simple keystrokes, students can connect with information on famous inventors, museum exhibits, curators, and professionals with expertise in many related fields. One fantastic web site is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Invention Dimension. It is an extensive source of information on inventors past and present, related links and resources, and the best part is that it is searchable. This access is limited only by surfing time and the speed of one’s computer.

Perhaps best of all, the Web joins students together into communities based on common interest. Communities dedicated to the spirit of invention and its application exist in many forms, such as bulletin boards and chat groups. All standard caveats apply with regards to internet safety, however, students shouldn’t be discouraged from trying to locate a fellow inventor when given the time and supervision. Most sites are maintained by organizations or individuals dedicated, through work or hobby, to the perpetuation of innovation by students and others.

Finally, another application of technology is graphic design. Students may use computers as a source of graphics for their displays or as a tool to help them design their own. Computers allow students to save multiple manifestations of their ideas in an infinitesimal amount of space (too bad that doesn’t work for their prototypes!) and, like photocopiers, allow an almost infinite ability to modify the size of an image. Even young students can have neat and eye-catching displays regardless of their fine motor control.

If your students are to utilize computers in this manner, they are going to have to be comfortable doing so. One way of providing the necessary support while bolstering the relationship they have with students from different classes is to set up a computer mentorship program. Pairing able students with those just starting out allows the able students a chance to share their skills while learning about their friend’s invention. The inventor is able to practice communicating ideas to a student colleague and learns valuable computer skills in the process. Best of all, the mentor may not necessarily be older than the novice, nor a fellow inventor. This interaction is a neat way to showcase learning and a great advertisement for the invention program!

Do Inventors Need Equal Parts of Creativity and Novel Ideas?

While all students participating in an invention activity should possess equal parts of creativity and novel ideas, this is where the similarity ends. Students of varying academic, social, and interest levels must be accommodated through differentiation techniques. Challenging capable students to delve into the deeper facets of the process, varying the procedures and outcomes and encouraging critical thinking skills are ways in which this experience can be made more meaningful for all involved. Using technology and the wide array of resources available today, teachers can customize students’ inventing experiences to suit their interests. Organizing and implementing a unit on invention can be a large and complicated task. With assistance from willing colleagues, parents, and others, students at all ability levels who are armed with a sense of creativity and commitment can succeed.


For those both in and outside of Connecticut, additional information may be obtained from the following sources:

  • The Connecticut Invention Convention, c/o Phoenix Duff & Phelps, Mailstop 2E207, 100 Bright Meadow Blvd., Enfield, CT 06083 or call 860-793-5299.
  • Invent America! Headquarters, 510 King St., Suite 420, Alexandria, VA 22314 or call 703-684-1836.
Print resources:
Bean, S. M., & Karnes, F. A. (1995). Girls and young women inventing. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Publishing.
Bragdon, A. D. (1989). Ingenious inventions of domestic utility. New York, NY: Perennial Library.
Caney, S. (1985). Steven Caney’s invention book. New York, NY: Workman.
Connecticut Invention Convention, Inc. (1999). Connecticut invention convention curriculum packet. CT: Author.
Eberle, R. F. (1972). Scamper: Games for Imagination Development. Buffalo, NY: D.O.K.
Goldberg, R. (1979). The best of Rube Goldberg. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
MacDonald, A. L. (1992). Feminine Ingenuity: How women inventors changed America. New York, NY: Ballantyne Books.
Marzio, P. C. (1973). Rube Goldberg, his life and work. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Electronic resources:
GirlTech, Inc. (1999). Girltech’s girl inventors [On-line]. Available: (link no longer active)
Inspiration Software, Inc. (1997). Inspiration. Portland, OR: Author.
Jeff Tunnell Productions. (1994a). The incredible machine. Bellevue, WA: Sierra-Online.
Jeff Tunnell Productions. (1994b). The incredible machine 2. Bellevue, WA: Sierra-Online.
Louisiana State University Libraries. (1996). African American Inventors Bibliography [On-line]. Available: (link no longer active)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (1999). MIT’s Invention Dimension [On-line]. Available: (link no longer active)
The Black Inventor Online Museum. (2014). The Black Inventor Online Museum [On-line]. Available:


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