Invention & Design:
Students to Inventors: Groups

Group Experiences

Although the experience of each group and individual was truly unique, some basic patterns emerged. Although the dynamics of the group interactions are described in more detail in a set of case studies [to appear on the Web soon], the following pattern held for most groups. At first, delegation and compromise were nonexistent in almost every group. Each student either came up with an idea or deferred to those students who had ideas. This was expected because many of the students reported that they are rarely required to work with other, equally talented students in their regular schools. For example, Li and Adamson (1992) concluded that gifted students generally do not prefer cooperative learning styles due to the fact that, among other reasons, "most of these gifted students are in integrated classroom settings where they have been much involved in differentiated curriculum, individual products and working on own pace" (p. 52). Talented students are usually exposed to competitive, individualistic tasks; group work on challenging problems with other high ability students seldom occurs (Archambault et al., 1993; Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993; Westberg, Archambault, Dobyns, & Salvin, 1993).

In this light, the frustration of the SEP students as they attempted to invent in small groups is understandable -- many of the students were required to solve difficult problems within a group of equally talented individuals for the first time in an educational setting, a working situation with which they were unfamiliar and uncomfortable.

After each group decided on an idea to pursue (or were told by a certain group member that his or her idea was the best one), the "idea losers" generally dropped out of the group processes or became disruptive and engaged in off-task behaviors such as playing with the equipment, teasing the students who were working, or drawing other group members off-task. These negative group interactions persisted until the preparation of the caveat (in the telephone module) or proposal (in the solar energy module). This was the flashpoint for most major confrontations within the group, since many groups tried to delegate by having the least helpful group members write the caveat. Of course, these students were the least familiar with what the group was doing and became frustrated with other group members .

Soon after the preparation of the caveat or proposal, students participated in a group activity. Students were each asked to fill out a worksheet containing questions about the dynamics within their group (e.g., How far did [your group] get in defining the task? Are the members building on ideas of others? Are members encouraging others? Are members helping to settle disputes? What are the problems the group needs to work on? How can you work on these problems?) Students were then asked to fill out an additional copy of the scale for the group after discussing their individual responses. Nearly all of the students reported that this experience was constructive:

[The activity] helped us to work out our problems and tell our other group members our thoughts without hurting any feelings. We were able to help someone recognize that he/she was becoming too dominant, and [the group] decided to discuss all action beforehand.

The group activity helped our group very much. I feel better about the project and the way our group functions.

I find the group analysis sheets to be very helpful. They help you to see what areas your group is having problems with and helps you to find a way to correct them. If you aren't having any problems, it helps you to see what your strengths are, so that you can use them to excel.

However, the exercise had less of an impact upon some students than on others:

I hope that the group analysis will help our group become more productive. I think that [the other group members] will try to be nicer, but their personalities can't change. I have tried to let them lead discussion, but they never have anything to say, so if I want an opinion I have to drag it out of them. Anyway, I will try to ask questions less, but I won't stop.

After the group reflection activity on the telephone module, students prepared a formal patent based upon their work with the telephone, and a presentation for the rest of the class. The teacher noted, "To prepare for the presentation means that all students in the group must go through the process of analyzing the invention, putting it into print, and understanding it well enough to defend it." A group that had major personality conflicts presented a clearly inferior product, and the students in the group were very embarrassed. Another group that had experienced difficult interactions pulled together and presented an excellent patent (they were the only group to achieve the transmission of sound with their telephone).

Group Projects

Groups came up with interesting variations on 19th century devices like the liquid and carbon transmitter, the photophone and the electromagnetic receiver. One group even combined electromagnetic and liquid designs into the same transmitter.

Many of the variations were arrived at independently of knowledge of what inventors had done. For example, one group put their diaphragm between two transformers without realizing this design closely resembled a polar relay Bell tried to transform into a telephone transmitter. These instances of re-invention gave us a chance to talk about the invention process. Many of the problems encountered by students also resembled those encountered by inventors. For example, one group came up with a design that resembled one of Edison's in which the vibrations of a diaphragm compressed carbon, thereby alternately increasing and decreasing the current. They found that the carbon gradually lost its friability, and the current no longer changed. Edison had a similar problem; he eventually created a compact carbon button which he put right on the diaphragm. Other groups learned the importance of incremental experimentation: instead of trying to transmit speech on your first try with a new device, try to send an on-off signal. When even this fails, decompose your device to search for the faulty components. Therefore, the combination of group reflection and patent presentation produced significant changes in group dynamics as teams went into the second, solar energy module. Groups appeared to delegate responsibility more efficiently, and students who were not actively participating became less disruptive. However, compromising was still difficult for most students.

Groups in this project tended to favor solar cars, boats and airplanes--even a solar train--constructing clever prototypes out of simple materials. Some of these groups did extensive market analysis to show that their inventions would actually save money, but none of the groups adequately considered the environmental savings that might result. One group tried to design a solar water heater that would not only provide hot water, it would generate steam for electricity. Another group designed a solar oven. Another group adopted the goal of improving life for a village in the Amazon; they hit on the idea of sending solar cells aloft on a balloon, and designed a 'skytent' to hold the cells and make sure they were angled properly. In every case, students were able to demonstrate that their prototypes could generate power. (Click here for more samples of student work from this course).