When Connie Liu started Project Invent, it was a weekend activity for a handful of students who wanted to learn what it takes to be an engineer. Now, Project Invent has grown into a nationwide network of high schoolers and teachers in 50 schools across 14 states.
During a Project Invent session, students team up to create inventions that impact their communities. Liu, herself an engineer turned teacher turned entrepreneur, has since been featured in the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for education.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Project Invent has managed to make remote learning as effective as previous lessons, and with the help of a scholarship fund to keep up revenue, schools still have access to the nonprofit’s curriculum.
Thinknum: First off, tell me about Project Invent, and how you got the initial idea for it.
Liu: We’re a national nonprofit. We work with high schools across the country to get students inventing tech for social good. Students essentially choose problems in their community that they’re passionate about solving, and we teach them the design thinking, engineering, and entrepreneurship skills to be able to solve those problems. Students have made everything from smart wallets to help the blind detect bill denominations, or football helmets to detect early signs of concussions. And all of these are driven by problems they see around them. Our major mission is how do we make an education system that empowers our youth to be changemakers, leaders, and problem solvers. To zoom back a little bit, I started Project Invent back in 2018. I grew up in the public education system, and it was when I got to MIT to study mechanical engineering, where that was my first exposure to getting a chance to solve real world problems versus problems in textbooks or by bubbling in answers. That was really transformative for me, to be able to see that I could identify problems in my world and know that I can do something about it, and it didn’t have to be that way. That empowerment has always been core to what I want to bring to the education system. That was a very large driver of why I started Project Invent.
What drew you to entrepreneurship in the first place? Was entrepreneurship on the horizon at MIT?
I think it was a lot later on. Obviously, at a place like MIT, it’s definitely entrepreneurial. I used to work at the MIT Media Lab, if you know Big Hero 6, that movie was based on a lot of the work that comes out of Media Lab — very futuristic, very dreamy about the potential of engineering to change the world. I think there are much fewer people going into education. So that was the flavor of entrepreneurship that I took. I think just being in an atmosphere where people were dreaming about the potential of technology and the future was very formative to my belief that any student could be that crafter of the future just like anyone at MIT could be.
What do you think of the current state of the education system in the US?
I think in an effort to standardize how we measure how students are performing, we diluted the whole purpose of the education system. A lot of our focus in public schools nowadays is in reaching certain standard metrics. So that’s getting the highest reading and math and science test scores in the district rather than whether students are graduating as empathetic or curious or confident human beings. Those things are a lot harder to measure, and because we don’t have metrics for them, we don’t focus on them.
"I think in an effort to standardize how we measure how students are performing, we diluted the whole purpose of the education system" - Liu
What skills can students gain from invention?
We have a set of six key 21st century student mindsets that we look at that are our priorities of what we want them to gain. We look at things like curiosity, empathy, confidence, and their agency to create change in the world. Those are all key to what we see as capacities that a student needs to succeed in a 21st century world, where jobs are being lost or changing every year. There are statistics showing that by 2030, 80% of the jobs we know now will no longer exist, just a decade from now. We need students who know how to adapt and know how to pick themselves up from failure and be resilient and be creative about how they pave their own way. And those are all of the mindsets and skills we’re trying to instill in students now so that they’re set up for the future, rather than just teaching them static facts or skills that will only apply for the next few years.
And out of those disappearing jobs, entrepreneurship or STEM-related jobs probably won’t be one of them.
Exactly. It’s the ways that you think rather than the facts that you know that will never go out of style. If you’re just a resilient human being, or a curious, creative human being, you’re going to be able to solve problems. It doesn’t matter if it’s a science problem, or a math problem, or a relationship problem, you’ll take that same resilient, creative, curious approach to being able to get yourself out of whatever problem you’re in.
Going back to Project Invent, what were the first steps you took to get the project off the ground?
I used to be a high school teacher. So the first school that I launched Project Invent at was the school I was teaching at, called the Nueva School in San Mateo, California. It was a private school and it had a lot of the resources and time you need to run something Project Invent that didn’t really fit to a standard. In my first year of teaching it was nine students, and a year later it was 100. There was clearly a desire for this type of learning among students, so I decided to bring it to other schools as well. Every Saturday I would run the same program at our local public school, East Palo Alto Academy. It had a very different demographic that it supported than Nueva School did. So being able to start with those two was my starting point. Then when I left teaching and started running Project Invent full time, we did a national search for teachers and started with a cohort of 10 teachers during that first year who ran Project Invent across the country.
"In my first year of teaching it was nine students, and a year later it was 100. There was clearly a desire for this type of learning among students, so I decided to bring it to other schools as well" - Liu
You made the transition to entrepreneur at that point — what was that like?
While I was teaching I applied for two seed grants for this. And even when I was writing the grant applications for those two grant opportunities, I don’t even know if I believed in the idea of bringing this national. It was just a pie in the sky idea that I lightly put onto paper. And then once I received notice that I had won the grant, it was a moment where I was like, “Oh, I guess I have to figure out how to do it now.” I hadn’t figured out any of the details. It was just putting a dream down on paper and sharing it with some people. Being able to get that external validation of “we think your idea is valuable and we want to put money into it” was the initial boost I needed to be able to do something as scary as quit a stable job and be able to start Project Invent.
It started organically, on the weekends, so that must have helped a lot.
It did. Being able to work at a school like Nueva and be able to connect with schools in my community, like East Palo Alto Academy were huge in being able to have enough confidence in my idea that I was willing to go full time. If I didn’t have those spaces to be able to pilot the idea, I don’t know if I would be able to have that stable point to make that jump.
How has the response been to these projects, both from teachers and students?
I think we entered the space of education at a very good time. There’s a lot of buzz and excitement around topics like project-based learning or maker education. We intersect those worlds, so we’ve definitely grown faster than we expected. It’s only been two years and we’ve been able to grow to 50 schools across 14 states. Our teacher retention rate year to year is 90%. For students who decide to continue their projects, it’s about 73% right now. A lot of students are not just stopping the program once the official program ends. They’re opting to bring their prototypes to patent and production and get them out into the world. Because they have chosen these personal problems themselves and seen the value it can create that want to see it to fruition. And I think those are really powerful stories and numbers that drive our determination that this is something that needs to be in every school.
"A lot of students are not just stopping the program once the official program ends. They’re opting to bring their prototypes to patent and production and get them out into the world" - Liu
How does that process work of patenting and developing inventions?
We do end the year with a big demo day. We invite some of the top tech investors in Silicon Valley to serve as judges during that. They award seed grants of about $1,000 to students to continue their projects. We also offer a program called Accelerate, which you can think of as a student accelerator. So any student that opts into continuing their project, we pair them with industry mentors, so someone who’s been working in the field as an engineer for a decade or so, who now meets with that student on a regular basis to advise the student on what next steps to take as their product.
Do you see some of these high school students turning into fully fledged engineers and founders someday?
We never started it with the goal of making sure that 100% of our students end up as inventors or engineers or entrepreneurs. At the end of the day, our final goal is [to make sure] every single student is a problem solver. And that doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of being an entrepreneur in the future. We love when our students decide to start companies and create new value in the world, but we’re proud of them no matter what they decide to do in the future, as long as they’re navigating their life with these mindsets of being curious, being resilient, being creative. It’s less career preparation, and more life preparation, and empowerment.
How has the pandemic affected Project Invent?
Luckily there are a lot of online tools to be able to mimic the collaboration that would happen in person, so we were able to pilot what virtual would look like with our teachers this summer, actually. We do a week-long training with them. We basically have them go through an accelerated version over the week, like 9-5 of what those students sill going through for the year, in a two to four hour per week cadence. During that time we’re able to take advantage of virtual whiteboards. There’s Arduino simulators. Arduino is a physical board you can program, usually they’re gathered around a table, plugging in this physical board into their computers, but there’s a simulator online that does about the same thing. Then there’s increasing our budget to provide more kits to students, so they can have personal kits rather than team kits. In general, we’ve been able to continue chugging along with something that you’d assume would have to be in person, like invention, but we’re lucky to be at a time where there’s enough virtual tools in the world that we can create pretty much the same experience online.
Is remote learning as effective as in-person? What are the pros and cons?
I think there is a pro that it opens up the opportunity for students to connect with problems that might not be as local to them. Before, we would always have them tackle local problems, via the people in their neighborhoods, so they could learn from them and hear their stories and develop systems for those challenges. Now that they’re doing it virtually, they can connect with anyone in the world, which is a cool opportunity. Maybe they can work with someone in Zambia, and be able to design something. When students get together for pizza party, there’s just a lot more organic conversation that happens, and relationship building that is a little harder to mimic when you have a one hour time block on a Zoom call that’s more focused and structured. You just don’t get the serendipitous connection building you normally would that jells a team together.
What advice would you give to high school students out there who want to become inventors/entrepreneurs?
I think the really beautiful part of entrepreneurship and being able to start something is that 90% of it is just being confident enough to believe in the idea in front of you. I think that was a big takeaway from my experience getting started with Project Invent. I barely believed in the idea, but at least I wrote it down on paper, and at least I sent it in for someone to read it. And that was all I needed for someone to give it a check mark and say, “Yeah, we believe in this too,” that made me take off and start my own nonprofit. But it does require saying yes to things even when you’re not sure, even when you think it’s scary, just to get things started. And that applies to any idea. If you have an idea for, I don’t know, a dog walking company or building a fruit tree sanctuary, it can be anything, but you have to believe enough to take that first step.
"I barely believed in the idea, but at least I wrote it down on paper...And that was all I needed for someone to give it a check mark and say, 'Yeah, we believe in this too'" - Liu
What does the future hold for Project Invent?
I think one thing that we’ve learned at Project Invent is there’s something really, really incredible about students learning from real world problems and real world people. Even when most schools say project-based learning and real world problem solving, they still just provide a case study or a story about a problem around them, but not really give them a real person to connect with who faces that problem. There’s Jimmy, who’s blind, who worked with our team who built a smart wallet to help blind people detect bill denominations. A huge part of that team building something so ambitious and being able to follow through with it was them building this strong relationship with Jimmy. And any time they hit a failure point, they said, “We want to finish this because of Jimmy.” If it was just for a grade, I think they would have quit much earlier on. So those personal relationships with community is huge to encourage risky and powerful learning for students.
So now we’re thinking about how to build ways to connect community and schools at scale. We’re thinking about how we build a platform to do something like that, like empowering community-centered learning around the world and around the country. That’s most immediate. Our mission overall is getting Project Invent into every school in this country. We truly believe that every student should graduate with an empowerment experience, and we see invention as the best way to be empowered in this 21st century world.