Invention-based innovations hold enormous potential to improve people's lives, create new jobs and industries, and provide the spark that propels economic development. Economist Joseph Schumpeter, writing in the early 20th century, saw invention as a crucial first step in a process of innovation that disrupts the economic status quo and drives development.
Unfortunately, inventors face numerous barriers in bringing their ideas to fruition. For young inventors, often finishing their educations or starting new enterprises, the challenges are even greater. Lemelson Foundation recognizes these obstacles, but believes fervently in the power of invention and its transformative potential. That's why the funder, based in Portland, Oregon, makes invention the focal point of its funding, which extends to programs in the United States and abroad.
We've written about Lemelson before, and like to check in now and again on this foundation, which occupies a unique niche in the philanthrosphere. Inventions may be an obvious driver of prosperity and progress, but we don't see a lot of funders explicitly focused in this area. A few—like the Kauffman Foundation—support entrepreneurs, many of whom have invented new products and services. But Lemelson is unusually laser-focused on the inventors and the process of invention. The way it's bored into this critical but uncrowded space is a good example of a funder with a high-leverage strategy.
To help nurture a new generation of future American inventors and innovators, Lemelson recently awarded a two-year grant of just under $500,000 to Boston-based Citizen Schools. This national nonprofit strives to enrich middle school education through expanded learning time programs held after the regular school day. Citizen Schools has programs in middle schools across seven states: California, Texas, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York.
But Citizen Schools does not operate your typical after-school program. Sure, there's the usual dose of academic support, designed to help middle schoolers improve their grades and test scores, but there's another component, one aimed at sparking the kind of critical thought and creativity that gives rise to the transformative inventions that change millions of lives.
A key element of Citizen Schools' approach to after school programs is its apprenticeship component, which turns students into young scientists, engineers, lawyers, business owners, artists, and others by pairing them with successful adults in these fields who serve as volunteer teachers in the program. Funding from Americorps supports the work of these volunteer teachers, known as Teaching Fellows.
Citizen Schools' Teaching Fellows bring their expertise to life for students over a period of 10 weeks, after which each student gives a "WOW! moment," a public presentation of what he or she learned over the course of those 10 weeks. This could involve developing a robot, producing a film, developing a computer program, or many other projects and activities designed to showcase what students learned through this apprenticeship.
The apprenticeship component of Citizen Schools aligns nicely with Lemelson's funding priorities, which emphasize invention and innovation. This is the organization's second grant from Lemelson, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2015.
Citizen Schools' model also reflects many of the characteristics of good after-school programs, as described by Columbia University psychologists Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Jodie Roth, who emphasize that the best programs approach students as resources to develop rather than as problems to be managed. Characteristics of the best after-school programs include helping students develop positive relationships with adults, building on their strengths rather than focusing on weaknesses, giving challenges to which students can rise, and providing enriching activities in which students can participate. Citizen Schools incorporates all of these characteristics, especially through the apprenticeship element of its model.
A growing number of funders have a shown support for the Citizen Schools approach. In addition to Lemelson, the organization's supporters include the Schusterman, Wallace, Gates, and Ford foundations, as well as Carnegie Corporation, Biogen Foundation, Cisco, and Fidelity.
Many funders are interested in after-school programs and other extended learning opportunities for K-12 students. A large number of such programs exist, and there are multiple models and methods — good and bad — for doing extended learning. There is a growing understanding of what effective extended learning looks like, and Citizen Schools appears to have found a winning approach. Lemelson, meanwhile, has found a way to parlay its focus on invention and innovation into a program with enormous long-term potential.