Supporting Next-Generation Inventors with STEM Learning

Who Becomes an Inventor in America?
By: | Issue: May, 2019 | Web Seminar Digest
April 30, 2019
From left to right: Alex Bell, Doctoral candidate in economics, Harvard University; Alaina Rutledge, VP, Educational Research and Development, National Inventors Hall of Fame

From left to right: Alex Bell, Doctoral candidate in economics, Harvard University; Alaina Rutledge,
VP, Educational
Research and Development,
National Inventors Hall of Fame

In contrast to their affluent peers, students from low-income backgrounds have less experience in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, and rarely become inventors in adulthood, according to the study “Who Becomes an Inventor in America? The Importance of Exposure to Innovation.” But more significant exposure to these subjects levels the playing field and raises student academic performance and career outcomes.

This web seminar explored how district leaders can promote collaborative, immersive learning environments that engage all students in STEM. The lead study author, who is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, and the vice president of educational research and development at the National Inventors Hall of Fame discussed the results of the study and methods for increasing student exposure to innovation.

Alex Bell: I became interested in innovation because as economists, we see innovation as the fuel of sustained economic growth. So we’re interested in understanding something about who becomes an inventor, and how we can create more of them.

Let me show you what I see as the most resounding result from my research: People becoming inventors are disproportionately coming from high-income, affluent families. The patent-granting rate for kids who are born to parents in the top 1 percent is about 10 times the rate for kids who are born to the average family. It’s an enormous skew. And the key hypothesis that we can reject is that kids from higher-income families have a higher innovative ability or talent to innovate.

We see very similar qualitative results by race. White kids are about three times as likely to patent as black kids. Again, this is not a story of differences in talent. The gender gap is also very interesting. Only about 18 percent of the inventors are female.

This is a story of lost Einsteins—a story of kids who have the potential to become inventors, but they don’t go on to become inventors.

What if women, minorities and children from lower-income families could invent at the same rate as the white affluent kids? We would have four times as many inventors—four times as much innovation going on in the United States—if we could somehow bring these lost Einsteins back into the fold.

The research sheds light on one potential silver lining: an opportunity for policy to intervene. We’ve done the first research to trace inventors back to where they lived during their childhoods. For example, kids growing up in the Bay Area are exposed to a lot of computer-type innovations, and they’re more likely to become computer innovators later in life. Similarly, kids growing up around a lot of drug and medical device innovation near the Mayo Clinic are more likely to innovate in that type of technology.

Alaina Rutledge: We have this hall of fame—a national monument of innovation. There’s a museum located at the United States Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Virginia, and we have this exhibit space dedicated to men and women who have truly revolutionized our world through innovation.

We have 562 inventors in the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and we’ve built relationships with these men and women to help us reach out to schools and students, and give their message about what it means to be an inventor whose work is so profound that it has permeated every aspect of our daily lives. We’ve taught 2.2 million students in about 29 years in all 50 states. Last year, we had about 20,000 educators working with us in about 2,800 districts.

We have practices and solutions that help schools teach innovation to their students. For students, the experience is multilayered and multifaceted, and it involves a carefully crafted blend of messages and experiences and exposures. Our goal is to expose students to creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration, intellectual property and STEM skills—all in tandem.

We have thousands of hours of interviews with these men and women, and historical archives of their work. If you have the opportunity to explore innovation with your students, we urge you to consider this path of innovation.

We’ve seen signs that there is an effect on our students after participating in our program. Even in school, in that 180-day space, we see increased attendance rates, increased GPA and increased test scores. We need these types of programs. The more of these you do, the bigger the gains are.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please visit