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At SXSWedu, 7th Grader Offers Lesson in Innovation

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By guest blogger Kathleen Kennedy Manzo. Cross-posted from Marketplace K-12.

The programming at the SXSWedu conference in Austin, Texas, is designed to engage adults in education issues and debates, but much of the discussion is around how to inspire and motivate students to dive deep into their learning, particularly with all the cool tools that mesmerize them.

There have been several lively sessions and workshops on project-based learning, social media in the classroom, using digital tools to lure kids into creating their own content, and tapping the arts to cultivate creativity and bring math, science, and other subjects to life. Gaming, YouTube, Minecraft, and other tools that can inspire students have been highlighted alongside presentations on big data, digital ethics, business models for ed entrepreneurs, leadership, and the common-core standards.

One of the conference's highlights so far, however, had nothing to do with those tools and technologies. It was instead a demonstration by a 13-year-old boy who has modeled many of the concepts that are part of the high-level conversations here: innovation, deeper learning, academic results, and student engagement.

Chase Lewis, a 7th grader from Chapel Hill, N.C., set out to solve a problem he found simply unacceptable. When his mother read him an article about the plight of families fleeing famine in northern Africa, and the wrenching choices they had to make when a child could no longer walk across the savannah, Chase was driven to find a solution. His invention, a refugee travois that allows a parent to easily pull his or her family on a wheeled transport, was named a winner last month in the Spark! Lab Invent It Challenge sponsored by the Smithsonian and ePals.

Chase brought the travois, a triangular wood and fabric contraption, to the conference to draw attention to it. He succeeded. Now he hopes to get ideas about how to produce and distribute more of the devices to put into use when the next famine hits in Africa or elsewhere—or to find partners to help him do it.

"During the 2011 Somali famine, parents and their children fled their homes for a two-week journey to refugee centers where they would get food, water, and shelter," Chase told me this morning. "When the children became too weak to continue on, their parents were forced to decide which children lived and which children were left by the roadside to die. I felt that no one should have to make such a decision, so I went to work trying to find a solution."

That determination led Chase, and his mother Michelle, on a quest to research, design, and build the travois. The project was arduous, but along the way Chase learned a lot about engineering, economic realities and environmental crises in Africa, and the urgency in finding simple solutions to life-threatening problems.

As part of the prize, Chase will receive legal assistance in developing a patent on his travois. With all the attention and connections he's received here, he hopes he will be able to put it to use soon to save lives.

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