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Who becomes an inventor? This Arkansas innovation hub is trying to spark a new generation

At MIT, Chris Jones led efforts to double minority enrollment in graduate programs. Now back home in Arkansas, he's on a mission to reduce barriers for low-income people, women and people of color toward becoming innovators, makers, thinkers and entrepreneurs. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Researchers have found that some of the key factors in determining who becomes an inventor are socioeconomic, location, race, gender and income.

    Jeffrey Brown travels to Arkansas to learn how a former MIT dean is inspiring the next generation.

    It's part of our weekly series on the Leading Edge of science and technology.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Outside the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub in Little Rock, a line of curious fifth graders.

  • Man:

    Good morning. How's it going? Ready to make something? Yes? Yes?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Their school, Booker Arts Magnet Elementary, is majority African-American and low-income.

    It's just minutes away from here, but most of these students are visiting for the first time. The Innovation Hub, which opened in 2014, is a maker-space, where people in the community and would-be entrepreneurs can find tools, technology and expertise for their businesses, products or inventions.

    It also hosts regular programs for kids, the next generation of makers. The students made T-shirts and worked with clay, but also got a look at more complex technology, laser tools to cut wooden key chains, and 3-D printing computers.

    In another room, an engineering challenge, to build a tall PVC tower capable of holding a bowling ball.

    You don't hit them over the head with, like, this is what engineering is?

  • Chris Jones:

    We don't. We're coming through the backdoor. We let them feel, touch, make, build. And from there, when then go and say, you know what just did, did you enjoy it? That was engineering.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Chris Jones is the new executive director.

  • Chris Jones:

    We're really about providing the tools necessary to create the innovators, the makers, the tinkerers, the thinkers, and the entrepreneurs of the future, particularly in the state of Arkansas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is personal for Jones. He grew up some 45 minutes from here in Pine Bluff. A lifelong lover of science, he went to Morehouse College on a full scholarship from NASA. He studied math and physics, before heading to MIT for a master's in nuclear engineering and a Ph.D. in urban planning.

    As an assistant dean, he led efforts to double minority enrollment in MIT's graduate programs. Now he's back home with a mission.

    Who do you see as your main target?

  • Chris Jones:

    Low-income, women, people of color who often are not seen as innovators, inventors entrepreneurs and makers. So, our question is, how do we reduce those barriers? Because, if we do that, then I think you unleash a power in the state and in the country that is right now being dampened down.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And the numbers point to the urgency. As part of a larger ongoing study of inequality in America, researchers used patent data to focus on innovation.

    Among their findings, children from high-income families are 10 times as likely to become inventors as those from low-income families. White children are three times more likely to become inventors than black children. And just 18 percent of inventors are women.

    Harvard's Alex Bell worked on the study. He met us at the National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum in Alexandria, Virginia.

  • Alex Bell:

    What we see is that there are a lot of talented kids who seem like they have the right stuff to become inventors, but yet they don't follow careers of innovation.

    This is concerning because it seems like we're leaving a lot of innovation on the table, and innovation we really think is the fuel for a long-run economic growth.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The study also confirmed that place matters. Kids growing up outside traditional innovation hotbeds, like Silicon Valley, are at a disadvantage. In fact, Little Rock had one of the worst inventor rates of all U.S. metropolitan areas.

  • Chris Jones:

    We tinker around the edges of innovation and entrepreneurship. We want to provide different policy mechanisms that make change. And they're saying through evidence, which a lot of us knew already, that if you expose a student at an early enough age, you change the trajectory.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    While the study focuses on patents, Jones prefer a broader measurement of innovation.

  • Chris Jones:

    Here at the Hub, it's not just about high-tech innovation. It's about low-tech innovation. It's not just about making things, but it's also about art and entrepreneurship. And, together, I think that's what creates a larger swathe of innovation.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Eleven-year-old Naomi Mkandawire personifies that range.

  • Naomi Mkandawire:

    I either want to be like an artist or an inventor or an actor. I like making like robots and animate objects that like move and stuff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You like making robots. Have you had to chance to make robots?

  • Naomi Mkandawire:

    Not yet, but I will in the future.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Not yet.

    Tyeisha Dupree is teachers at Booker Elementary.

  • Tyeisha Dupree:

    I'm hoping that this experience will light the fire in them to bring out whatever science, engineering, whatever it is that they like to do and let them be creative with it. And it lets them know when they see someone like the director, that I too can be great.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you see yourself that way, as a role model?

  • Chris Jones:

    Now I do. And I think that part of what we're trying to do too is create a diversity of role models for all sorts of kids.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    One such role model for Jones is 83-year-old Raye Montague. A native of Little Rock, she's credited with the first computer-generated rough-draft design of a U.S. Naval ship in the 1970s.

    Denied a formal education in an engineering program, Montague started as a clerk, but eventually became the Navy's first female program manager of ships. She fought discrimination early and often.

  • Raye Montague:

    Most engineers were white men, OK? So when I walked in, they thought I was a part of the help. And a guy looked to me and he said, "I would like a cup of coffee." And I said, "So would I. Make sure mine has cream and sugar, please."

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    When President Nixon ordered the Navy to design a new ship in two months, a process that normally takes two years, the job went to Montague. She finished the work early.

  • Raye Montague:

    People say, you were the first black woman to do this.

    No.

    They say, you're the first woman.

    No. I was the first person. And that makes a difference. Everybody had to overcome obstacles, but you got to do it in spite of the system, not because. If somebody says you can't, bull. You can.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For its part, the Arkansas Regional Innovation Hub has a new tool, a mobile maker-space to reach students in schools too far from Little Rock for an easy field trip.

    It's called the STEAM Roller, using the acronym for science, technology, engineering, art and math. We followed its maiden voyage, a trip to Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel Junior High, which happens to be the school Chris Jones attended.

  • Chris Jones:

    I really wanted to go off to see all the exciting things that were happening in the world, and always wanted to come back home.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The STEAM Roller brought laptops, a screen printer, and a tool for 3-D printing and laser-cutting. The plan now is to take it all around the state.

    You said to them, I sat right there. Right?

    So, what do you see when you're looking at them?

  • Chris Jones:

    I see me. You know, I see me. I see the folks who were my classmates, a lot of which went on to do really cool things, some of whom were much brighter and smarter than I am who didn't because they weren't as exposed.

    You know, I see future problem solvers, I see innovators. And what I love about bring the hub to them is that I can tell even from today the spark in their eye grew.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jones hopes that spark will ignite change and innovation in his home state.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Little Rock, Arkansas.

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