In his young career, Nate Ball has become an accomplished engineer and inventor, earning the 2007 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for invention. He also co-hosts PBS's "Design Squad," a television program aimed at building engineering skills and encouraging creativity in young people. In this podcast, Nate Ball shares his enthusiasm and inventive spirit, and talks about making engineering fun and inspiring for the next generation.
"Prototype Online: Inventive Voices" is a production of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center. Written and hosted by Paul Rosenthal. Audio production by Benjamin Bloom. Theme music by Will Eastman. Art Molella, executive producer. Nate Ball was originally interviewed on 3 May 2007 by Paul Rosenthal. Photo courtesy of the Lemelson-MIT Program; podcast released 18 May 2007.
Tell us what you think! Take our podcast survey.
Paul Rosenthal: From The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for Study of Invention and Innovation, welcome to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices." We're coming to you from within the National Museum of American History, right on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and nestled comfortably between the Washington Monument and the EPA. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
Our topic for today: "Television: vast wasteland or medium of inspiration? Discuss." All right, that's not going to work too well in a podcast, but now you have a bit of an idea of where we're going in this episode.
Just a couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet a young man named Nate Ball. Aside from some demonstrated skills as a human beat-box, Nate is an accomplished inventor, scholar, mentor and, as he puts it, "a guy who likes to build cool stuff." Oh, and he also has a national television show on PBS. So now you see my challenge, which is: "where do you begin with this guy?"
How about if we start with some biographical information that's written on his company's website, atlasdevices.com. "Mr. Ball has an extensive background in product design, testing, and instrumentation for the implementation of high-power mechanical and electrical devices. Previously he pioneered the use of an ultracapacitor regenerative breaking system of his own design, developed a portable vaccine cooling system for rural delivery in developing countries, and designed a high-efficiency Stirling engine-powered heat exchanger." Among the awards Nate has earned for his work was the $30,000 Lemelson MIT Student Prize for Invention, which recognizes and seeks to inspire the next generation of inventors.
When I saw Nate it was part of a program being put on by the Lemelson MIT program at the Museum of Science in Boston, and part of that program was something called "The Windy 500, " an engineering design challenge for more than 100 high school students and their teachers. The students worked in teams on a surprise project with the help of science and engineering mentors in a race against time and each other. It's exactly the kind of thing Nate Ball does on the PBS program he co-hosts called "Design Squad." In each episode a group of high school students tackle a real-life engineering challenge, powered mostly by their own creativity and skills. In Design Squad Nate gets the perfect chance to share his enthusiasm for engineering with other young people who are similarly inspired.
Nate Ball: I've had this bug for a long time. It's hard to say what exactly made me catch the bug. It's been a lot of different things that have played into it for a long time. I think my parents recognized an inherent interest in construction and creativity in making things when I was really young. I guess on the web it talks about how I used to sit in the garden digging in the dirt all the time. I would make these dams--I was about 18 months old--digging little cities in the dirt. I love to build stuff. And then I got into blocks. I got really frustrated as a two-and-a-half-year-old when I got my first Lego set, because I really wasn't dexterous enough to manipulate the actual blocks. I was really at about a Duplo level of manipulation capability, but I wanted to play with the real ones because they were so much cooler. I just couldn't quite do it.
My parents did a really good job of feeding the inherent interest in creativity, both in music and in construction, building things that they saw that I had. And then, as I went down the line, getting more--as I grew up--different influences in the form of teachers and extracurricular programs, all kind of built up and continually played into this fervent passion that I have for invention and building cool stuff.
I don't usually think of it as "I'm an inventor!" per se. I like to build cool stuff, and I like to solve problems.
Paul: What would your definition, then, of "inventor" be?
Nate: I guess it's, technically, what I like to do. An inventor improvises creative solutions to interesting problems--not always in a technical sense, either. You could invent a melody just as well as you could invent a device. They're different scales, but it's all building from a given tool set that you have to create something new.
Paul: It's the nature of improvisation, I guess, seeing what you have out available to you and what are you going to do with it?
Nate: Yeah, that's right.
Paul: I guess that's a good jump into the television show. Tell me a bit about the nature of that. Do you think that that is something which is based upon improvisation, and that's the thrill of it for you?
Nate: Absolutely. There's a lot that plays into that. It's ironic because I grew up without television. That's largely a reason that I built all these interesting things, and that's played into my going to MIT and ultimately winding up being the host of the TV show. The irony is bemusing there.
As a host--I get to work with Deanne Bell, also--we together are acting as teachers and mentors as well as engineers. So we get to exemplify the design process and the creation and the problem solving that we want to impart to the kids on the show. But additionally you have to get creative as a teacher, just as any teacher does, and try to improvise a creative description that conveys what you want to convey in a way that they learn instead of just standing there looking--"oh, that's what I do next."
I'm trying get them to grow their tool set at the same time as getting them to enjoy building those tools and seeing the potential of being able to solve cooler, more interesting problems. Trying to figure out how to do that on screen and in an interesting way is a really big challenge that's a lot of fun.
Paul: What's particularly fascinating to me is that you're somebody at the beginning of your career. The first impression that one would think of is that you are still in a position where you are going to be relying upon others who have gone before you, in many senses, and trying to excel from there. Yet right from here, someone at the beginning of their career is already setting themselves up as somebody inspiring those who are to come next.
Nate: I've gotten a lot of help. I've been tremendously inspired by a lot of people--My parents, my teachers, my advisors at MIT, friends and peers that I've gotten to work with. It's what I want to do to be able to put that together in a way that I've become impassioned about it and try and pass that on to other people.
Watching my mom inspire kids about music--she's an elementary school music teacher--she never has to raise her voice. It's all positive, and she's able to get an entire class to be come riveted by the wonder of music. You can watch it happen in real time.
From that to the way my advisor Ian Hunter at MIT can inspire an entire classroom of people to get excited about engineering and science and technology. He teaches Instrumentation and Measurement class at MIT, 2671. We used to call it Discovery Channel class because he's kind of tech geek. He loves the coolest equipment and stuff. So he'll take you into class, and not only are we going to have to do a little bit of calculation about it, but he does it in a way that's really accessible.
I think that's the greatest way to be able to inspire people -- that this digital recorder right here, the computer in the corner, it's not a black box that's got a bunch of magic inside, it's stuff that if you break it down it's principles that you can understand or you can easily learn to understand. The digital camera in front of you: it's sweet, it's 11 megapixels. Not only are we going to pass it around class and not drop it because it cost 25 grand, but we're going to do a little bit of math and figure out what kinds of bit depths are going to fit on X memory card. He starts to build a tool set in a way that becomes accessible and interesting and expands your horizons. All of a sudden it's not these black boxes. You're like "Hunh. I can probably figure out how that works and manipulate it and use it" instead of wondering about it.
Paul: He's breaking it down.
Paul: It's giving it piece by piece, putting all the elements together.
Getting back to this idea of you working to inspire young people, I would have to think also, and perhaps your mother sees this, too, I would tend to think, that people who she's working who you're working with they have to be inspiring you, and turning it back. What examples do you think there are of insights that you now have in the way you do your work that have come from these young people. Anything?
Nate: Their grossly underestimated potential, both from themselves and from other people. Kids are amazing. I don't think they get enough credit for how smart they are, how sharp they are, and what they can do at the level they are. I've gotten to work with some fifth graders in Cambridge here locally. They're so on the ball. They don't miss a beat. Usually the thing that's expressed is they caught a little inconsistency in the rules that you just made. They're going to jump on it and give you a hard time about it.
But at the same time, I've had the chance just a couple of times to turn that around in a way that they make a really good moment of observation. They'll figure out a little subtlety of engineering or science, or suddenly understand something. You see this little spark turn on, and then all of a sudden they're able to use that. They don't always. They might end up standing on the chair anyway, yelling. Seeing those sorts of things happen...
On Design Squad I got to watch these high schoolers go from not even having a lot of self-confidence themselves in the shop to being really capable engineers and product designers and problem solvers and team members and teammates. Watching that skill set develop in only the course of a summer was amazing, watching what they're able to come up with. I try not to underestimate students.
Paul: It's not everybody who can be on this show or even necessarily have a chance to watch it, so as you are concerned about this untapped potential that's there in young people, what are the solutions you think that there are to that? What else do we need--perhaps in the country, in the education programs, in society, in media--in some manner that you think we might be able to tap into that?
Nate: Give them chances to do it. Don't get angry when your kid sets carpet to the rug [laughs]--I'm thinking of "Back to the Future"--don't get too mad when your son sets fire to the carpet. Feed the natural interest that kids have and don't squash it. I've seen a six-year-old get told off by his parents in the grocery store for rearranging apples and oranges in what was admittedly a pretty sophisticated-looking pattern. The parent's like, "Put those away! What were you doing?" The kid is creating this really interesting-looking pattern of apples and oranges and feeding his own creativity.
Maybe you don't see a lot in that right away, but that can play into some really interesting things in the future if you can keep those things going, whether it's trying desperately to maintain a music program in a failing school district, or a shop program, or anything like that. Trying to maintain and not squash the few chances left that we have to continue inspiring and to allow creativity to happen and develop. I think it's going to be critical in the future, if it's not already, to be able to. Things are going downhill and we need inspiration and innovation more than ever.
Paul: I want to go back to what you said about the fact that you grew up without television.
Paul: Is that something now...can we allow that to happen now? Can young people growing up without television now be as both informed and able to participate as much as those who do have television, just because in the last 10 years the number of channels that are so specific and specialized to certain activities, certain things. Any young person can go in and find something that they want that already appeals to something that's very much part of their nature. I would have to think that would have to help in a sense feed what they're up to. But on the other hand-- don't think there's a right answer to this--hat are your thoughts about that?
Nate: Television's a wonderfully powerful thing. It depends on what's important and what people are paying attention to and expending effort on. If a person is so fortunate as to find something on TV that feeds an inherent interest of theirs in such a way that they want to pursue it--maybe it's watching "Law and Order" and wanting to become a lawyer, forensic scientist, or something--I don't know that that's necessarily going to happen -- watching "Scrubs" makes you want to become a doctor -- maybe it does.
As long as that doesn't become consuming in a way that you're only worried about the TV show and watching it happen on TV. If there's a way where TV can inspire you to take that and go beyond, I think that's the really important part. That's what Design Squad is trying to do. They have outreach and projects you can do on the Internet. I think that's a pretty important aspect of it. It's awesome if you can find something on TV -- I don't know -- The History Channel, you discover that you're really interested in the Civil War and you become a scholar about it later on -- that's awesome, that's wonderful, and opportunities like that should continue to grow and become available. As long as the TV as a tool doesn't become the focus, it's the beginning, then it's great. If not, then it's a detriment and you'd probably do better without it.
Paul: Let me ask you this, do people still ask you what you want to be when you grow up? Have you answered that question for yourself yet?
Nate: No. Hardly. My parents used to be really diligent about my sisters and I completing these little booklets every year--these little schoolbooks, you put your school picture in it and say who your friends are and what you want to be when you grow up. I used to write "everything". Every cool profession or profession I thought was cool that I had ever heard of, I would write down. I wanted to be a chemist, a lawyer, a cryptographer -- I hardly knew what that meant. I knew that they made codes -- that I thought was really cool. I'm not sure I ever said "mechanical engineer," "electrician." I went all over the place.
I want to build cool stuff that helps people, basically, whatever I do. If I'm not doing that I want to be inspiring other people to do it because I find it so exciting. It's just great. There's so much you can do.
Paul: You've got your hands in both worlds right now...
Paul: ...which has got to be really great.
Nate: Yeah. I feel very fortunate to be in the position I am. I want to make the best of it, the best use of it that I can.
Paul: So 20 years from now you, hopefully, see yourself doing the same thing?
Paul: Whatever it may be, the same thing?
Nate: Yep, exactly.
Paul: Good for you.
Nate: Whatever it is. Build cool stuff, inspire people.
Paul: Hopefully we can also sit down again and talk about it then. In another long-term Smithsonian tracking of your career.
Nate: That sounds good. I'll look forward to it.
Paul: Wonderful, Nate, thank you for joining us.
Nate: Thank You.
Paul: A little insight from inventor and engineer Nate Ball, who no doubt is proving to be one of those great minds, and I should add great personalities, of the 21st century. The show he co-hosts is called Design Squad. You can learn more about that on the PBS website.
On our next podcast we're going to feature Nate's co-host, who is similarly inspiring. Her name is Deanne Bell, and we're going to tackle the issues about getting girls interested, involved, and active in engineering, and find out what it might take to get more girls to follow careers in the field.
Thanks for listening to "Prototype Online: Inventive Voices," brought to you from The Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the National Museum of American History. I'm Paul Rosenthal.
We're anxious to hear your thoughts about this program, or any others from the Lemelson Center. Send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about us on the web at invention.smithsonian.org.
We'll be back again soon with more insight into the great inventors and innovators of the 20th and 21st centuries.