Inventive learning methods

A statewide program encourages students to solve problems by creating products of their own


Watching his father dig through an overstuffed wallet one day, Scott Barnhill had an idea.

"My dad has so many cards in his wallet that he could not find his hotel card key," Scott later said. "This made me think about how I could solve this problem through an invention."

Why not create cards with multiple magnetic strips? A gas station, for example, could add a strip to an existing card. Scott was 9 years old when he had the idea.

Scott, now 14 and an eighth-grader at St. Paul's School north of Baltimore, has since secured a patent for his Security One Card, and is working with a company that is interested in licensing it.

The difficult process of turning his idea into a marketable product was helped along by a company called By Kids for Kids. "Without the help of By Kids for Kids, I doubt I could have obtained the great licensing and marketing efforts for my invention," Scott said.

Now, the unique resources of By Kids for Kids will be available in Anne Arundel and other Maryland public schools. The state has become the first in the nation to approve the program for its school system.

"There has been a high level of enthusiasm for this," said Nancy Grasmick, state superintendent of schools.

One school that hopes to incorporate the program right away is Rolling Knolls Elementary School in Annapolis. Principal Jane Taylor and several students attended a By Kids For Kids launch ceremony at the State House in September with Grasmick and first lady Kendel Ehrlich.

"Right now the details are a little sketchy about how it will be used," Taylor said. "We're anxious to participate, but we're not sure how it's going to come together yet," she said. "It looks like it's going to be very exciting for the boys and girls."

Previously, the By Kids for Kids program had been implemented sporadically throughout the nation, said Norm Goldstein, founder and CEO of By Kids for Kids.

"In Maryland," he added, "it is a statewide initiative with Dr. Grasmick's support."

The alliance with Maryland is noted on the home page of the company's Web site:

The approved program means that schools will have the By Kids for Kids resources available to them, but are not required to use them, Grasmick said. The program might be incorporated into the curriculum, or can be used for an after-school club or a pull-out-of-class enrichment program.

"Each teacher and student will have a different approach to it," Goldstein said. His company and previous kid inventors, including Scott, have been featured in The New York Times, People magazine and on television shows.

Karen DeGraffenreid, a gifted and talented coordinator in Anne Arundel County, said she and other coordinators throughout the state learned about the program this month.

DeGraffenreid said it was not clear yet when the program would appear in schools. "We're just in the stages of getting the word out, getting information out," she said.

But she noted that entries for a statewide "Cool School Tool" invention contest would be accepted from Nov. 14 to Feb. 10, so schools have an incentive to get the program running and get the inventions submitted in time.

The contest is open to all Maryland inventors in kindergarten through 12th grade. The winners will be announced in April. Every viable invention will be pursued, Goldstein said, noting the company's alliances with such powerhouses as Mattel and Xerox.

Even if the products don't earn millions for their inventors, he said, the process of meeting with patent lawyers and officials from large companies, not to mention the experience of appearing on television shows and in newspapers, would be valuable for young people.

DeGraffenreid noted, as did Grasmick, that gifted and talented kids aren't the only ones likely to benefit from the program. Even students who don't do well in school might respond well when challenged to think in different ways, she said.

"I've often had parents say, `My child did something creative - I don't know what to do with it,'" said Grasmick. "This program is yet another opportunity for our children to use their talents.

By Kids for Kids, along with Scholastic, the educational publishing company, has created the Inventive Thinking Toolkit, which is being offered statewide.

"I think that this is a great avenue, and it's a great conduit," said Scott's father, Greg Barnhill. "This might give a child a leg up."

Barnhill said he had his lawyers check the company out before letting his son get involved. He was impressed.

Though By Kids for Kids is a for-profit company, it provides free help with marketing and licensing. Goldstein introduced Scott to potential business partners and orchestrated a media campaign. "He has channels or avenues that we don't have," Greg Barnhill said.

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