Innovative Kids Make a Difference for Us All

A MiddleWeb Blog

stem_design_logoI kicked back to check email recently and noticed that my editor, John Norton, had sent me a link to a TED Talk.

I clicked on it and up popped an engaging teenager who, at age 15, had developed a promising early detection test for pancreatic, lung, and ovarian cancer. It was cheap, effective, and non-invasive. Say what? I decided to do some further research on young Jack Andraka.

Jack Andraka’s discovery

Apparently Jack Andraka acquired a passion for cancer detection when a close family friend died because his pancreatic cancer was not discovered sooner. Early screening methods are notoriously ineffective in this type of cancer. Spurred by teenage optimism, Jack began researching and thinking about ways to spot pancreatic cancer in its early stages. He had a light bulb moment while studying antibodies in his biology class.


Pulling on information about carbon nanobubes and antibodies, he researched and developed his ideas for detecting a protein found in high levels in those with pancreatic cancer. He then contacted Johns Hopkins and the National Institutes of Health with his plan, hoping to receive laboratory help. Dr. Anirban Maitra at Johns Hopkins gave him a positive reply and laboratory access, and Jack Andraka began his work in earnest. (Talk about the ultimate STEM project!)

I examined as much information about Jack’s cancer detection system as I found, even scanning through parts of the patent before my eyes glazed over. But, in the end, it wasn’t the actual invention that held my attention. Why, I wondered, would a teenager start out on such a deep and complicated quest to begin with?

My quest for discovery

So I started a quest of my own – a pursuit to locate teenage innovators who are making a difference for our 21st century lives and to find out why they were doing it. My first discovery was that the sheer number of successful young inventors and entrepreneurs is eye-popping. So I narrowed my search to medical and environmental areas. (Those were two favorite areas for my science students and seemed to lead naturally into engineering/STEM applications.)

I then narrowed my focus to 15 of these young researchers. If you like, download my annotated list of their names, their inventions, why they tackled a particular project, and links to each.

In reading about these amazing young people I drew several non-scientific conclusions concerning what drove them to try to solve the problems they tackled. Most of those who focused on medical innovations seemed driven by a health need of a particular family member or a friend. Most of the environmental inventors were captivated by the problems faced by people in specific locations (hunger, lack of electricity), hazards created by particular products such as plastics, and energy needs.

One underlying commonality emerged: they all cared deeply about the problem they were solving.

Several of these teens mentioned that they were inspired and encouraged by adults – a teacher who let them think and work outside the box, parents who encouraged them to follow their passion, professionals who believed in them.

Another point common to all – genuine gladness that their inventions have real-world implications for people today. They want to make a difference in their world and to make it a better place for others. They look forward to tackling more of the world’s problems head-on.

What’s not common

You may be thinking that I left out an important commonality. Weren’t these kids all “geniuses” to start with? Some, of course, did have an amazing grasp of deep concepts in mathematics and science.

Yet others were traditional students, former gang members, poor students, or even “uneducated” by customary standards. Their “genius” emerged when they combined their sense of passion and purpose with creativity and persistence. Richard Turere helped his father tend cattle in Africa.

If you check out my annotated list, you’ll also notice that these young teenagers have nothing in common in terms of ethnicity, gender, or nationality. They include both males and females and come from many socioeconomic backgrounds. So, if there’s a recipe for creating teenage entrepreneurs, it seems to be a combination of factors different from those.

The commonalities among teen inventors

Here’s my starting list for similarities you might find among our young innovators.

  • They are curious and observant.
  • They are motivated by problems and events that affect people they know and care about and have personal meaning for them; and/or they have a driving interest in a particular local or global problem.
  • Adults (parents, teachers, mentors) encourage curiosity and allow them to follow their passions.
  • Information and resources about the problems they solve are available to them. Note that some, such as Jack Andraka, relied almost totally on Google and open access sites.

You can find other commonalities, of course. The question this raises for me is this: How can we as teachers nurture our kid’s curiosity and observation skills, and prepare them to be innovators?

E.O. Wilson – a child prodigy who is now a leading American biologist, researcher, theorist, and naturalist – has some thoughts on that. I’ll share one from a recent interview with this 87 year-old rock star of science.

If you wanted me to have a tag line for a lesson, it is that we are not teaching enough or in the right way. We need to find a way to get little kids into what they do well at, what they seem to innately want to do. . . . Somehow, in addition to their basic education, you give them that outlet.

You encourage them to do what they seem to want to do. You never know when that idiosyncrasy, that certain kind of play, or obsession, might be a foretelling of a wonderful life or great career. In other words, each kid probably has that potential. I certainly had the great good fortune of developing mine. I certainly was lucky.

Wilson’s Boyhood from EOWilson Biodiversity Foundation on Vimeo.

What you are doing by teaching STEM will make a difference.

You may open a portal for a student who has no other avenue or outlet for creative problem-solving. That’s why it’s important to let your young STEM enthusiasts follow their passions. Be flexible and encouraging. Don’t tamp down passion and drive, whether or not it’s in a STEM field. Who knows how many kids you may inspire simply by turning them loose?

I got a lot of my information for this post from the following articles. You might find them interesting as well, despite some hyperbole and a good bit of advertising!

Whiz Kids who are the future of medicine
The world’s 50 smartest teenagers
6 World-changing innovations by teenage geniuses
9 Teenage geniuses who have created major medical innovations

Feature image: Richard Turere

Anne Jolly

Anne Jolly began her career as a lab scientist, caught the science teaching bug and was recognized as an Alabama Teacher of the Year during her long career as a middle grades science teacher. From 2007-2014 Anne was part of an NSF-funded team that developed middle grades STEM curriculum modules and teacher PD. In 2020-2021 Anne teamed with Flight Works Alabama to develop a workforce-friendly middle school curriculum and is now working on an elementary version. Her book STEM By Design: Strategies & Activities for Grades 4-8 is published by Routledge/EOE in partnership with MiddleWeb.

1 Response

  1. ajollygal says:

    Breaking news! The next top innovative teen was just announced! The winner of the $150,000 Intel award is Maya Varma, a California teen who invented an inexpensive device to diagnose chronic lung disease. The 17-year-old built her device out of $35 worth of basic electronics, but it is as accurate as hospital-grade versions of the equipment that cost far more. Its low cost could help to save lives in developing countries where affordability is key.Check out Maya at

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