Adventures to Invent the Future!

“If you get up in the morning and think the future is going to be better, it is a bright day.”

– Elon Musk

It started with an empty cafeteria and my principal’s vision to involve students from all backgrounds in STEM. After all, it’s our first time bringing “Invent the Future” to our school. Really, how many students would be interested in doing this expanded engineering club? How many parents would show for Parent Information Night? 5? 15? When over 40 families arrived and over 30 commitments resulted, we realized we had our work cut out for us.

Together with a special partnership between Bethesda’s Kid Museum and Montgomery County Public Schools, our principal, Dr. Murray, shepherded in our school’s first-time involvement for the “Invent the Future!” county-wide engineering showcase and competition. At the helm of this Adventure was yours truly. I should have been overwhelmed, starting a new program from the ground up with nothing but a directive, but for the first time in years, I was finally back in my element.

Resources in order through this SPECTRUM Acrostic

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In one semester, 30 of our “middle” middle school students – all with a wide ranges of abilities and no prior experience in engineering – designed, built, and presented something to help the environment. The beauty of the Invent the Future program is it challenges students to think about solutions to “protect life on Earth.” The immediate connection to life science challenges the misconception that middle school engineering is only reserved to coding, mechanics, or design for the sake of building for physical machines. Inventions must be directly linked to how they are solving environmental problems affecting plants and animals on Earth. Great integration!

Click on the gallery below to see our Orange Team in action!

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Another significant attribute to Invent the Future is enrollment. For all 40 middle schools, a certain percentage of students must be enrolled in the Free and Reduced Meals program, contain a lower-middle GPA, and otherwise include populations underrepresented in STEM. Our school also represented a 50/50 split of female/male. Not once were these students screened for their interest in a future of science or engineering. Instead, they were recruited for their passion in finding solutions in our future on and off this planet. Even if none of those students shown aptitude in a STEM-related career, all of them were simply invested in a project important for everyone. And we did it with cardboard, hot glue, and iterations through the Engineering Design Process.

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Even though it was extra-curricular, I got to see students with little exposure to engineering come up with, design and build ideas with teams. This is what my classroom should look like! My favorite part was requiring detailed sketches and redesign notes in their journals. The collaboration which came over these students was what a science teacher pines for in her science class.

Since these were not typical students on an engineering track, many were not familiar with the concepts of engineering save what they’d done for their embedded science units. I used a simplified Engineering Design Process model and a lot of open-ended journaling techniques.


Most importantly, I focused on presenting ideas through practice presentations, introductions, and weekly updates through Google Classroom.

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.13.45 PMThis project allowed me to work with students from all three grades, and join them on five field trips to the Kid Museum maker space for a sequence of hands-on building workshops. Since I’ve been in the science classroom exclusively for the last two years, this was a chance for me to get out of my room and into a creative maker space as well.

Our “classroom” was filled with tools, drills and saws. We used Tinkcad and Arduinos with buzzers and lights to build robotics components, with sensors even. It was great seeing students actually designing and building!

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Two things culminated on a brilliant Challenge Summit May 11, 2019. First, grouping teams by major environment group (deserts, forests, marine animals, insects, etc.) was a quick decision I made which cemented the concept of our work. Second, my task was actually to run two clubs – one monthly engineering design challenge for regular students (“Blue Team”) and Invent the Future (“Orange Team”). The duality of involvement through this process was astonishing. Sometimes Blue Team events built incredible structures in an hour but didn’t know how to communicate their findings, and sometimes Orange Team got stuck because they’d spent so much time on one topic they couldn’t see the big picture. I simultaneously facilitated both processes, and kept ushering Orange Team toward the May 11 Challenge Summit to prepare them to present their findings to a small group of judges.

I mentioned I was in my element. Building new programs is my thing, and I have 15 years experience in just this thing. Fortunately, Invent the Future itself was a year old, so I was able to enter the program with some existing structure at the county level, even through our school’s involvement was new. It was a ton of startup work, but when it came to students CREATING and PRESENTING their work, well, let’s just say I enjoyed letting my 15 years experience pay off. They are the ones on stage, they had roles getting to it, and they’d been rewarded for their perseverance. All I had to do was pave the path for them, and stand back as they ran by me!

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This once-abandoned display case at school now houses the students’ inventions, journals, and materials for all to see. Most importantly, I filled it with books about endangered species, not just about coding and engineering.

Also, here’s our Spring 2019 Newsletter for our Middle School. Go Orange Team! I’m so proud of you!





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If I have an Undo, or moment I wish I could change about this experience – which I don’t, but if I did – it would be to involve more staff and actual engineers in the process. Since I’ve now seen a full cycle, I’d like to bring more community in to the process and see how students are learning to Invent their Future, and vice versa. Additionally, the science teacher in my pined for a room of the enthusiastic collaboration I saw in the engineering club. I’m trained to bring this into the science classroom, and yet in practice it’s not always this way. I’d like every science classroom to have the student-centered autonomous learning we experienced in Invent the Future. It’s why I started this career to begin with!

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 10.43.53 PMPart of the entry process for groups was to provide real-world problems and open-ended videos to help guide their thinking toward inventions. I started with this video on the Engineering Design Process, then assigned each interest group various videos like the ones enclosed. BirdsDeserts, Humans (below), etc. Finally, I included as much biomimicry independent research as possible.

Below are just some of entry videos used to capture each group’s ideas for current issues facing humans, insects, marine animals, deserts, etc.



Other resources:

Download & Thanks

This Adventure’s free download is an open-ended STEM Journal I created for both Blue and Orange Teams (Orange Team eventually kept their own journal). It’s aligned to the Kid Museum Markers of Success around Ideas, Solutions, and Presentations.

STEM Journal

The mission of is to engage teachers who are cultivating student-centered STEM classrooms, one Adventure at a time. Site content and SPECTRUM acrostic copyright © 2019 Jess Rowell. All Rights Reserved. Not responsible for any third-party content.

This Adventure is dedicated to Ms. Argentina Valencia, a beloved support staffer from our middle school campus, lost too soon. To me, she is forever a lesson to be kind to everyone, everyday.

Follow our adventures with #thisiswhatstemlookslike #kidmuseum #inventthefuture #wannastem


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