Yesterday, 55 kids from grades 4-12 – winners of the Connecticut Invention Convention (CIC) here in Connecticut — were sent off by Gov. Dannel Malloy, well-wishing parents and executives from United Technologies Corp., Stanley Black & Decker, and others, to the inaugural K-12 National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo in Washington, D.C.

It was quite a sight. All sporting their orange CIC competitor T-shirts from the recent finals event at Gampel Pavilion in Storrs, and carrying inventions ranging from a next-generation CPAP mask for hospitals to a new piezoelectric shoe insert to stimulate foot nerves for diabetics, these kids represent the best of the future workforce of Connecticut.

In D.C., they will be part of a group of more than 260 young inventor and entrepreneur finalists from 15 states, gathered for the first time to celebrate the best of American ingenuity and creativity through invention and entrepreneurship.

While awesome as this is, this represents yet another milestone for Connecticut, a state that has deep roots in innovation. The kids and the first-ever national event are the culmination of some 33 years of work here in Connecticut by the CIC – a program that has quietly become a staple in childhood K-12 education.

Each year, the CIC trains more than 20,000 kids in 250 schools across the state in invention and entrepreneurship skills, and challenges them to take a problem they have  and solve it.The results are as amazing as anything you see on Shark Tank.

The national effort, spawned by the CIC’s successes, adopts the CIC mandate: that “every child, in every school” has an opportunity to become an inventor once, better twice, during their K-12 career, instilling in them key lifelong skills.

My Reason for Hope – Made In Connecticut

Having worked in the “innovation” space in Connecticut for years launching startups of my own and helping with others, I have witnessed first-hand the difficulty with which the state struggles to build momentum vs. states such as California, Massachusetts, Texas, and other hotbeds of entrepreneurship. Never mind what we’re seeing come from foreign countries.

The silver lining, however, has been watching the development of the CIC, which has taken a much longer and broader view of the role of invention and innovation in moving Connecticut forward. Created in the 1980s, the CIC has done more than survive tech bubbles that have grown and burst, and outlasted many small and large businesses that have come and gone before and after the Internet spread.

In fact, the CIC has continued to expand its programs into more than half of the school districts in the state, teaching the skills with which Connecticut kids will need to go forward in their professional lives. It has reached more than 400,000 students, more than one in every 10 “Nutmeggers.”  It has defined and met the need to teach invention, innovation and entrepreneurship early and often.

You may be living proof of their efforts. Or, perhaps your kids are now the young Edisons launching into detailed pitches of the best new mouse trap, or innovations which help grandmothers with arthritic hands, cancer-treated patients with their hiccups, or workers better maintain roadways.

The CIC is about making the invention process rewarding. The focus is on defining a problem, creating a solution, building it, and defending it to willing listeners and mentors. That’s a crucible moment in their lives. This set of skills is priceless in a future of constantly changing vocations and workplace demands.

And the CIC produces more inventors every year here in Connecticut than any state economic development program.  But that’s not the end of the story. Many kids are also able to take the next step: launch products into the market.  Mansfield-based Mallory Kievman has a factory kicking out her hiccup lollipop s— Hiccupop s– on an assembly line in volume and shipping all over the world.  These kids have grown beyond the morning paper route and lemonade stand.

Invention without borders –What if?

Having watched thousands of kids (including my own) benefit from this program, it dawned upon us at the CIC that maybe not just our kids, but “every child, in every school, in America should become an inventor.”  That meant taking our CIC “invention” beyond state boundaries.

What if our annual 20,000-strong Connecticut experience was replicable in all 50 states to the point where we had 10 million young inventors and innovators trained in invention and entrepreneurship education year after year?  What if in 10 years we had built an army of innovators and entrepreneurs for whom no problem defied workable solutions?

We embarked upon the moon shot – bringing our successful Connecticut experiment to the rest of the nation.

That required another Connecticut invention called The STEMIE Coalition – a “roll up” of invention and entrepreneurship programs across the U.S. under one umbrella to help elevate all of these programs and make them more successful. This alliance created the first national annual event to attract young innovators from across the U.S. to a national stage.

The National Invention Convention and Entrepreneurship Expo – NICEE (pronounced Nice-See, as the kids are already calling it) – will allow winning inventors and entrepreneurs from programs across the U.S. to showcase their inventions, share their visions, be inspired by peers, and interact with judges and mentors, in this first such celebration and competition.

We’re a movement to bring more practical and lifelong skills to our kids, and to gather together all the programs which are trying to make that happen – and work together to grow innovation, invention and entrepreneurship education in today’s K-12 schools.

To provide resources, we’re building open source curricula, professional development programs for teachers, best practices-sharing events, common operations processes and software, and other foundational elements to make us all successful.

And we’re getting programs talking.  Indeed, in Connecticut, the CIC – which teaches kids how to take problems and build viable products as solutions to those problems – and Junior Achievement of Connecticut – which teaches kids the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and financial literacy – have never worked together, until now. The two programs are in the early stages of planning a linked program that would have the kids invent something, and then figure out how to commercialize it.

From CT, with inventions

This has been our journey and how we got to the bus full of 55 Connecticut young inventors headed to the nation’s capital.

Thanks to efforts started locally, the best and brightest K-12 minds now have an annual national showcase that should inspire and encourage countless other young students from every state to explore hands-on problem solving through invention. And for themselves to keep on inventing.

And we have a springboard to get the whole nation running invention convention programs in their states, and tying them to national youth entrepreneurship programs along the way.

Connecticut is not only continuing its historical command around invention, but also stepping up to advance the American Innovation Agenda. We all own a piece of that in Connecticut, and it’s something we should be proud of.

So watch the news for coverage of our young inventors owning D.C. with their inventions, and celebrate all 20,000 of the kids that annually invent their own future each year in Connecticut.

Danny Briere, of Mansfield, is CEO and President of The STEMIE Coalition.

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