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Edisons in Training : Impracticality No Barrier at Science Fair

Times Staff Writer

Sometimes peanut butter is the mother of invention.

It was peanut butter--and a fertile imagination--that gave rise to the Knifty Knife. A small wooden utensil, the Knifty Knife is shaped something like a hacksaw, something like a finger stuck surreptitiously into a peanut butter jar. A little paddle fits snugly against the inside of the jar and allows a determined scraper to extract the last morsel of the contents.

The Knifty Knife, equally effective with smooth or crunchy, was invented by Jared Nishikawa, a sixth-grader at Westwood Elementary School. Jared looked at a spoon, looked at a knife, looked at a jar of peanut butter and said, “Nah.” He knew there had to be a better way.

Jared kept an inventor’s log while he was refining his notion. “I will change it if it doesn’t work,” he wrote, with true Edisonian grit.

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Not to worry. The Knifty Knife is so good Jared said he thinks Skippy should offer it as a premium.

Jared’s was one of dozens of ingenious devices invented by local elementary-school children on display at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Fourth Annual Science Fair, held last weekend in downtown Los Angeles.

Like many others at the fair, Jared’s invention will be entered by his school in the national Invent America competition, sponsored by the U. S. Patent Model Foundation.

This year, 40,000 schools nationwide are taking part in the Invent America program, according to Margaret Shepard, a spokeswoman for the private, nonprofit foundation. The program is designed to teach youngsters innovative thinking skills, Shepard said. It includes an annual competition to find the best youthful invention at each grade level.

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Innovative thinking was abundantly evident at the science fair. Inventions ranged from a battery-operated paint roller--created by Fernando Cisneros of Huntington Park’s Miles Avenue Elementary School to help his father--to several clever but impractical improvisations on the notion of Pampers for pets.

Michael Gareth Smith, a sixth-grader at Gledhill Elementary School in Sepulveda, displayed his solution to the universal problem of schoolchildren who lean back in their chairs, teetering on two legs on the brink of orthopedic disaster.

“The kids are always driving the teachers nuts, and it is a bad habit,” Michael said. “Kids do get hurt sometimes.”

So Michael came up with the five-on-the-floor chair. With the help of his father, who is also an inventor, Michael affixed a fifth leg to the back of a standard-issue school chair. The fifth leg keeps the other four on the ground no matter how hard the student attempts to drive the teacher nuts.

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“I’m going to try to get it patented,” Michael said.

Aids for Chores

Fear and loathing of chores was an unfailing source of inspiration for the youngsters. Brandon K. Okita, a first-grader at the Brentwood Magnet Science School, submitted his Easy Catch, a magnetized implement that looks like a sponge mop.

Easy Catch is to cleaning a child’s room what the long hoe is to field work. By attaching magnets to a board where the sponge should be, Brandon made an excellent tool for removing Matchbox cars and other metal toys from the floor of his room without bending over or kneeling.

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Brandon’s older sister, Kristin, also invented a device to save child labor. Her entry was the Tree Net, a mesh device that hangs in a tree and catches the leaves before they fall to the ground, simplifying lawn cleanup. Kristin is a fourth-grader at Brentwood Magnet.

Some of the prototypes showed a precocious polish that suggested a parent had worked almost as hard on the project as the young inventor had. That was not the case with Sarah Van Ness’s Moving Magnifier, however.

Sarah, a third-grader at Brentwood Magnet, invented a simple but effective device, a plastic magnifying glass taped to the top of a little wooden truck. As Sarah explained to her science teacher, Phyllis Smolen, you can use it to read across a page or to watch moving bugs.

Mark Landsberg, a sixth-grader at Brentwood Magnet, invented a magnetized cabinet that holds much more than ordinary cabinets because metal objects cling to the sides and top as well as sit on the shelves. Theoretically, it also keeps stored objects in place during an earthquake.

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The teachers who supervised the young inventors said such projects are opportunities for creative expression and more.

Smolen said inventing is a good way for youngsters to learn the scientific method: They must come up with a hypothesis for solving a particular problem, test it and modify it if it does not work. They also learn how to solve a problem in real life, she said.

Smolen gave extra credit to students who invented toys for the animals she keeps in her classroom, which resulted in a swing for the lizard and a Ferris wheel for the mouse.

Sharon Rubin, who teaches gifted fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders at Westwood Elementary School, said the experience was a demanding but rewarding one for her students.

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“They struggled in the process,” she said. “There was a lot of complaining, but they loved it in the end.”

One of Rubin’s sixth-graders, Taylor Hines, invented a cat scratcher--a cardboard box with two whisk brooms set into the top at cat-back height. Laurel House, a fifth-grader, devised a vest to be worn in an earthquake, equipped with such emergency supplies as water and a battery-operated radio. The vest comes with extra batteries.

Esther Zack, who teaches fourth grade at Paseo del Rey Fundamental Magnet School in Playa del Rey, said inventing teaches students that there is more than one solution to a problem.

It also teaches them how to deal with failure. “They had to see that failure was just part of the process and not to give up,” she said. “They had to go on from there.”

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Inventions by Zack’s students included a board game for blind players by Ryan Warner and Brian Wanke’s vitamin-spiked gum.

In the adult world, inventors often jealously guard their ideas. But the young inventors were encouraged to work together.

Solar-Powered Hot Dogs

At Miles Avenue Elementary School, Sharlin Kunimoto’s second- and third-graders collaborated on a solar-powered hot-dog cooker. Sharon Rubin divided her class into inventors’ groups of four to six children who critiqued each other’s work and made suggestions for improvements.

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Michael Smith’s five-legged chair inspired Gledhill schoolmate Tony Escobedo.

Tony was trying to design a classroom chair that could be tipped back but would not tip all the way over. He asked Michael if he could adapt Michael’s fifth-leg concept. Michael agreed, with the understanding that Tony would owe him “a future monetary consideration” if their prototypes are ever developed commercially.

Most of the youngsters were first-time inventors, but a few have been building and rebuilding prototypes for years.

Daniel Mirell, a sixth-grader at Brentwood Magnet, devised a magnetic power generator that exploits the fact that magnetized molecules attract less strongly when heated.

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Daniel said he began jotting down notes and drawing sketches of inventions in second grade. One of his favorite inventions is one that does not work yet--shoes that jump when the wearer pumps air into them. His most successful device so far is his improved paper-airplane shooter.

Daniel no longer sketches his ideas. He builds them.

“I don’t put them on paper,” he said. “I like to keep them open, because I change them many, many times through trial and error.”

As to where ideas for things like jumping shoes come from, Daniel said he does not know. “It must have been some sort of inspiration.”

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