One boy at Miss Paula's School invented a bubble gum tree. The invention didn't work because you can't grow bubble gum--a mere technicality, the boy's teacher said.
"I don't care how silly an idea you think it might be," said Catherine Holst. "Nothing is wrong with your invention. Nothing is stupid when you are creating."
The children at the private Northridge school recently participated in a national contest. They were told to become inventors.
Four million children, ages 5 to 13, entered the "Invent America!" contest, sponsored by the United States Patent Model Foundation. Officials of the private, nonprofit group said it was founded to collect patent memorabilia for the Smithsonian Institution.
In the San Fernando Valley, the big winner was Michelle Minassian, a kindergarten student who fashioned a water necklace from blue plastic tubing--you can wear it and drink from it.
The gadget was judged the best of any kindergarten invention in California. Michelle, who is 7 years old, won a $200 savings bond.
"First I thought of a water bracelet, then I thought a necklace would hold more water," Michelle explained. She said she thought of the invention because she gets thirsty a lot.
Keith Nelson, an 11-year-old who isn't much taller than Michelle, constructed a springboard for short people who can't dunk a basketball. That didn't win any awards, but it was fun on the playground.
Erin Driver, 6, likes to paint "houses and mountains," she said, so she devised a painter's palette that hangs from your neck. The project took 10 minutes, she said.
"You get all kinds of inventions. Some are very complex and serious, and some are more cute," said Elizabeth Kelly, a Washington spokeswoman for "Invent America!"
The contest was organized last year after foundation officials became concerned that American ingenuity was on the decline. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, almost half of all patents in recent years have been awarded to foreigners.
"We would like to see Americans invent more," Kelly said. "The place to start is with our children. Every child has ingenuity and creativity."
Last fall foundation officials perused thousands of contest entries, which came in the form of drawings, photographs and descriptions of inventions. Winners were selected for each grade level from each state. The top 45 inventions and their inventors were brought to Washington for the finals.
The national winner among seventh-grade inventions was an easy-clean bird cage. The cage has a paper-towel dispenser at the bottom. You pull the paper towel through without ever reaching into the cage.
That invention qualified for the cute category. It landed the inventor a spot on "Late Night" with David Letterman.
Other national winners took a more serious slant.
An eighth-grade boy from Florida won with an artificial ocean reef for breeding fish. That invention is being studied at the University of Florida, Kelly said.
A fifth-grader invented a swivel headrest for airplane seats. A major airline is considering the invention for its planes, Kelly said.
Big business has yet to show an interest in Michelle Minassian's water necklace or Keith Nelson's "slam dunk" springboard. But the contest will begin again this spring, and Mrs. Holst, at Miss Paula's, remains hopeful.
"One of these things like the water necklace could turn into something useful," she said. "These ideas are so simple that you just wouldn't think of them."
Like a bubble gum tree.