Teen Innovators: An Interview with Author Fred Estes

“When will I ever use this?” Every STEM teacher has heard this question before and will likely hear it again. Answer your students with Teen Innovators: Nine Young People Engineering a Better World with Creative Inventions. This new nonfiction profiles nine YA innovators who discovered a problem, conducted research, and used STEM to solve the issue.

Today author Fred Estes joins us to reveal his inspiration for the book, tips on increasing creativity, and his upcoming projects. Don’t miss the free downloadable teaching guide!

What was your inspiration for the book?

Jack Andraka’s TED talk electrified me. After playing it for my students in science class, we had a fantastic discussion. We ranged through the science and technology he used, but the hottest idea as that people like them could make amazing discoveries. Right then I decided to write the book I wanted to read and discuss with my students. This is that book.

What did you learn when writing this book?

Creative thinkers often apply similar methods. Although their projects were very different, these teen inventors developed their ideas in very similar ways. The paths they followed also resembled the creative trails of other scientists and inventors. There is a pattern to creative thought.  If you learn and apply this process, you unlock your creativity and inventive ingenuity.

What do you hope readers will learn or discover from reading your book?

Everyone is creative! Creativity is a skill that can be learned and developed. We all have unimaginable potential. These teen innovators point the way and show us what is possible, even without lots of money or lavish resources. Read Teen Innovators as a “how-to” book.

Who is your favorite inventor? 

That’s easy. These nine teens are my favorite inventors.  Writing about them and their ideas was very exciting. What inspired them to do the hard work of inventing? Where did they get their ideas? How did they solve the inevitable problems, dead-ends, and discouraging days? I am seriously awed by their accomplishments.

Has your research changed how you see inventors and inventions?

Writing this book opened up a new world for me. Now when I read about inventors like Edison, Tesla, Curie, or Carver, I can see the same creative process at work. It is like pulling the covering off a mechanical clock to see how it works. Reading the stories of famous scientists and inventors now illustrates many variations on the same underlying creative process. The surprising leaps of imagination and intuition take your breath away.

What is your next book about?

My next book focuses Design Thinking.  Many teens and adults already use this creative problem-solving process to improve the world and solve both global and local problems. Their stories and case studies will illustrate the steps in this process that anyone can learn.

What can people do to become more creative?

Everybody can be more creative:

  • Adopt a growth mindset, believe you will learn and grow, and realize you are more creative than you think.
  • Read widely and seek out new ideas and viewpoints.
  • Looks for WCBB — What Could be Better– what in your life, your community, and our world need improvement?
  • Then read, listen, and surf in-depth to learn more about those areas. Talk to people who know about them first-hand.
  • Make things. You don’t need to be an artist or an engineer. Just use cardboard and duct take to give form and shape to your ideas.
  • Collaborate with others who want to accomplish the same goals.
  • Most importantly, things take time, so keep going.

You are a teacher and a parent. What can parents, teachers, and schools do to encourage creativity and innovation?

Well, that is a book in itself! These bullet points are key ideas, each worth a chapter:

  • More emphasis on learning by doing projects and free exploration
  • Less emphasis on “one right answer” and more emphasis on alternative ideas and approaches to any problem
  • Much more emphasis on new ideas, diverse cultures, alternative viewpoints, and seeing issues from other perspectives
  • Totally revamping our system of grading and assessment to encourage learning and creative thought, rather than to stifle it

What can our country do to help people be more creative and innovative?

Creativity thrives in open, inclusive, and fair environments. Our country and leaders could embrace the concepts of social justice and work to dismantle systemic racism, sexism, and the policies that build in and support prejudice of all kinds. We could insure good schools and healthy communities for all, and not just for some. Why wait for government to fix things? Can you collaborate with others who want a change and act on your own, like these teen innovators did? We can act and live on our highest ideals, rather than on our basest fears.

Free Educator Resources

Download this free teaching guide created by the author. Each chapter is reviewed with discussion questions and opportunities for research. This guide can also be found on the Lerner website here.

Praise for Teen Innovators

“The rich variety of individuals and projects highlighted will encourage budding scientists. A compelling read for teens interested in the STEM fields and an inspirational resource for science classrooms.”—Kirkus Reviews

“While all faced challenges, these teens forged ahead toward their visions with creative confidence. Design thinking and other creative problem-solving skills may help you, too, unleash your own inspiration. Fred’s book does a great job of getting you started on your journey.” –David Kelley, founder of Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and IDEO, co-author of Creative Confidence

Connect with the author

Fred Estes taught science for nearly two decades in a school near his home in San Francisco. He’s written several articles about science teaching, including “Compost: The Rot Thing for Our Earth” and he is a peer reviewer for a National Science Teaching Association journal. Before that, he taught high school English, worked as a financial analyst, joined an AI startup, developed corporate training programs, and earned a doctorate in educational psychology and technology. Currently, he teaches graduate students and teachers about design thinking, innovation, creative teaching methods, and hands-on-STEM curriculum.

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