Speaking at the Lemelson Center’s 2020 conference Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives, the economist and Federal Reserve Board of Governors member Lisa Cook noted that myths about Black inventors come with costs. She observed, only partly in jest: “people…think of three Black inventors: Garrett Morgan, George Washington Carver, and Madam C.J. Walker. One thing we can note about them is that they are all dead. A lot of people believe that no Black inventors exist today. They just were all wiped out, by a meteorite or something. These myths are costly. They suggest that Black invention is a thing of the past. They also suggest that there are limitations to Black invention.”
Myths about who inventors are and how they work have contributed to skewed demographics among the scientists, engineers, and inventors who work in research and innovation in the United States. Recent econometric studies have found that white children are three times as likely as Black youth to become inventors. Other studies have underscored the importance of visible role models to inspire young people to become inventors and pursue STEM-based careers.
Efforts are underway to better resource Black inventors and entrepreneurs to secure patents and start companies. And large research-based companies are seeking new talent to diversify their R&D (research & development) workforce. Scientists and engineers from a mix of backgrounds and from a mix of races and ethnicities are more likely to invent products that consumers are eager to purchase. However, changing perceptions of who can be an inventor needs to start early and be reinforced throughout middle and high school with educational content that is relevant and contemporary.
Inspiring STEM Pathways thus presents first-hand accounts from interviews with living inventors who work in a variety of fields and organizations. The videos and learning materials are intended to encourage students to pursue STEM fields by seeing role models speaking about their interests and passions, challenges they encountered and how they overcame them, and how they draw on curiosity and resiliency in their daily work.
The engineers, scientists, entrepreneurs and inventors featured here are employed at organizations ranging from large corporations to universities to small startups. They come from backgrounds ranging from immigrant families in the Bronx to small southern towns. Furthermore, they developed their interests in math and science at different points in time, ranging from elementary school to high school. But they also have important commonalities:
- they all had teachers or other adults who showed or modeled a path to success,
- they all took risks in developing projects they were passionate about,
- and they all developed strong resiliency to overcome challenges and failures.
The linked pages showcase the work of Nathan Brooks, an engineer at Boeing; Jessica Matthews, who leads the startup Uncharted Power; Tahira Reid, a professor of Mechanical Engineering at Purdue University; Anthony Ruto, a design engineer at Autodesk; and James West, a retired Bell Labs engineer. The five-minute videos are accompanied by suggestions for math and science problems, group discussions guides, and invention challenges. Teachers using these materials are invited to share results and suggestions for other classroom uses by emailing email@example.com; your feedback will help us improve these and future STEM Pathways videos.
Lisa Cook, “Not Just George Washington Carver,” Black Inventors and Innovators: New Perspectives, 16 November 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZYG0wlzQkc.
Lisa Cook, “The Idea Gap in Pink and Black,” NBER Working Paper No. 16331 (September 2010), https://www.nber.org/papers/w16331
Linke, Rebecca, “Lost Einsteins: The US may have missed out on millions of inventors,” https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/lost-einsteins-us-may-have-missed-out-millions-inventors
Alex Bell, Raj Chetty, Xavier Jaravel, Neviana Petkova, and John Van Reenen, “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 134 (2019), 647-713. https://doi.org/10.1093/qje/qjy028