Inventors and their process of make, test, learn

Above all, an inventor is a learner. Inventors solve real-world problems by developing physical solutions. They must make a series of decisions, apply knowledge from various domains, and investigate and learn about any new unknowns.

A young inventor will follow a simplified, intuitive version of the inventor process. Play is a method for discovering potential solutions to problems. Observing inventors or children playing can teach us a lot about learning.

Maker education revolution

Conventional education is struggling to provide the learning environment necessary to help raise the future innovators, problem solvers, and entrepreneurs that advanced societies need. Maker Education offers a model for education in the 21st century.

“The progressive development of man is vitally dependent on invention. It is the most important product of his creative brain.”
― Nikola Tesla, My Inventions

A core aspect of the inventor’s process of work is that anything they do is grounded in the real, tangible world. They solve problems of the real world by creating physical solutions. They follow an iterative process according to which every design decision they make is implemented, validated and improved upon.

Using the data they extracted from each iteration, they make new decisions: “Should I replace component A with component B?”; “Should I try a new configuration for this sub-circuit?”; “Is my current design capable of solving the problem to specification”?

Inventors create tangible outcomes to validate and improve their knowledge.

Inventors also seem to enjoy what they do immensely. Given a choice of spending their time in a lab working at an exciting problem, or at a tropical beach having cocktails and sunbathing, they will always choose the lab!

Being an inventor is hard. It is hard on the body and the mind. Thomas Edison, perhaps America’s greatest inventor, said:

“Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

But there is a lot more to the story of inventing than just hard work. Let’s dissect in some detail the cognitive skills that, over time, an inventor develops in order to be able to achieve their goal.

At the very start of the process, an inventor must look around, in the real world, and recognise things that are not quite right. What looks perfectly normal for other people, to an inventor it might look broken, inefficient, imperfect.

Once the problem is found, it must be evaluated and if determined important enough to solve, to at least try to solve. The process, which heavily resembles a systems thinking approach, can be approximated to the following steps:

  1. Detect a problem.
  2. Evaluate its importance (is it worth solving?).
  3. Conceptualise and analyse the problem (understand the problem in every possible detail).
  4. Devise a draft architecture for a solution.
  5. Analyse the problem into functional components.
  6. Implement a prototype solution and evaluate it.
  7. Collect performance data from the prototype solution.
  8. Evaluate the performance data and use it to reassess prior assumptions at all previous steps, i.e. is the problem still important? Is the solution practical and worth the effort?
  9. Evaluate the possibility that this iteration has produced an acceptable solution. If yes, this is your solution. If not, reiterate, and try to get closer to an acceptable solution.

Within this process, the inventor will have to make a series of decisions, apply knowledge from different domains, investigate and learn any new unknowns.

During this process, the inventor must put into work a wide range of core skills. Here are some of them:

  1. Synthesis (the skill of selecting and combining a variety of components into a working system)
  2. Analysis (the skill of examining and identifying the parts that make up a problem)
  3. Efficient context switching between synthesis and analysis (creating a solution requires constant switching between synthesis and analysis)
  4. Contextual awareness of their environment (ability learn from others, evaluate changes in the environment that may effect prior assumptions about the problem and the proposed solution)
  5. Ability to discern what is important and what is not (the ability to remove noise from the information available in the world)
  6. Fanatical note taking (as memory is fallible, valuable passing thoughts can contain they key to solving a problem)
  7. Adaptability (as new information becomes available, use it to improve the understanding of the problem and the proposed solution)
  8. Play as a way to discover possible solutions to problems

In almost every step of the invention process, there is learning. This is because, according to most definitions of the word, an invention has to be something new, at least for the inventor.

Imagine a child putting together a four-wheeled robot. She has never really done something like this before. She may have heard about four-wheeled robots in the past, she may even have read instructions on how to assemble one and about the components that are needed. But until she actually creates this robot, she will not know it. The learning will come by actually focusing on the process of creating the physical artefact.

The young inventor will, intuitively, follow a reduced, intuitive version of the inventor process.

Imagine now that she starts to assemble the robot, diligently following the step-by-step information printed in an instruction manual. Oh, no! She mis-wired a motor, and the robot’s wheels spin in the opposite direction to what she expected! What happens in her mind now?

First, she will realise that something is not right with the assembly. Her robot is not moving as expected.

Second, she will focus on the part of the robot that seems to be behaving incorrectly, the rear wheels.

Third, she will look at the component that actually makes the wheels move, which is the motor. She will realise that the motor is causing the wheels to move the wrong way.

This will prompt her to investigate motors, and why they work the way they do. Her desire to fix her robot will prompt her to either look up this information on an online resource, or ask someone that might know the answer. She may even remember having a similar problem in the past, and recall her existing knowledge on the topic. One way or another, she will find the answer and realise that the problem can be fixed simply by swapping the wires that power the motor.

The process of creating her invention exposed her to several opportunities for learning. Although she had never built a four-wheeled robot before, she had the goal in mind and worked diligently across several fields. Most likely, she did not even realise that she did, since in her experience all of these fields are integrated into one: making a four-wheeled robot.

Electronics, mechanical engineering, programming, systems thinking and electromagnetism are just some of the cognitive components that the inventor needs in order to put together this physical device.

Learning felt like playing, and making was just the method based on which learning becomes playful and engaging.

This is typical inventor behaviour. A problem is an opportunity for learning.

She now takes out her smartphone and takes a photograph of her creation (an equivalent of an inventor’s fanatical note-taking habit). She adds this text annotation to the photo: “My first four-wheeled robot! Beware of how you connect the motor or it won’t move the way you expect!”. She posts the photo and the quick description to her electronics hobby group on Facebook. A response comes back just a few seconds later from a friend:

“What kind of motor did you use? And the microcontroller, what is it? And can you share the code?”

To which she replies:

“For the rear wheels I used a cheap 5V DC motor, and for the front ones a mini-servo motor. I used an Arduino, I love it! And here’s my code on GitHub! Have fun!”

Despite the legends around supposedly lone inventors like Tesla and Edison, the process of invention is very collaborative, even when people are not in the same room. Inventors will always build their work on top of the work of others, and reciprocate by sharing their work with others.

An inventor is, above all, a learner. The learning that the inventor does is guided by the inventor’s objective, which is the creation of a physical object that is new, at least to them, and perhaps has never existed until it is captured in the inventor’s mind, and turned into reality by their hands.

We can learn a lot about learning by observing inventors, or children playing.

Interesting readings

Maker Education Revolution

Learning in a high-tech society.

Available in PDF, Mobi, ePub and paperback formats.

Using Maker Education as a model for education in the 21st century, Dr Peter Dalmaris explains how teachers, parents, and learners can apply the educational methods of inventors and innovators for the benefit of their students and children.

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