Lemelson-MIT Program

Ideas Forward

Volume #1  Spring 2008

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Paper Airplanes, Duct-tape Armor, and Kite-surfing

Innovating and Interning at a California Do-Tank

by Victoria Thomas

Wrapping in duct tape
Interns Victoria Thomas (left) and Garrett Sapsis (right) design armor from a trash bag and duct tape (shield also included, but not pictured) Photo by Guy Davidson, courtesy of Victoria Thomas

Not once in the first 16 years of my life did I think I would happily wake up to the sound of a Wienerschnitzel drive-thru. Not once did I picture myself living with eight other interns and a mentor, with whom I worked at an innovation "do-tank" in Alameda, Calif. Not once did I imagine learning to kite-surf in the San Francisco Bay, camping at the gorgeous Waddell Beach, constructing a 4,500 square-foot roof deck, or building more PVC marshmallow shooters than I could count. Not once did I foresee contributing to projects ranging from building paper airplanes to assisting on a presentation for Google™ under the mentorship of a soon-to-be MacArthur Fellow. Not once did I expect the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams initiative to combine all these experiences into a summer internship. But that's what Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams does; it proves to kids like me that they can do things they never thought possible.

Enter: Saul Griffith, 2004 winner of the $30,000 Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, 2007 MacArthur Fellow, and co-founder of Squid Labs; and Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams, a national grants initiative to foster inventiveness among high school students. Together, they envisioned this unimaginable internship for InvenTeams alumni, such as Mr. Crane, Garrett, Skyler, Guy, Rob and me.

We had the time of our lives this past summer. When a normal workday started with learning from some of the most innovative minds in the world, and ended with company trips to the beach, how could we not? We all joke that the single bad thing about our internship is that no other job will ever compare. Did I mention catered gourmet lunch?

Now would be the time to give the traditional disclaimer: However, it wasn't all fun and games. However, it was all fun and games. Fun and games were our job.

Garrett and I spent a few weeks creating Howtoons® – projects for kids outlined and illustrated through cartoons that aim to foster an inventive spirit. We made things like duct-tape armor, garbage-bag rain gear, and skateboard sails, all with the refreshing motto "PLEASE try this at home!"

When we weren't getting in touch with our inner child, we worked on bigger things. We learned how to build a pallet roof deck like nobody's business, helped the company engineers test their new technologies, and logged many exciting hours in the coolest machine shop I have ever encountered. I've seen power tools before, but my high school sure didn't have a precision-cutting waterjet.

Prior to interning in Alameda, I had no idea that an office environment could embody fun and games so productively. I thought that loving your job was an ideal that everyone strove for but never quite fulfilled, and the overlap between work and play was a rare occurrence in which both were diluted.

Not the case.

At Squid Labs, I discovered that work and play can be combined to produce an innovative passion that is exactly what the world needs to progress. I saw real people having a blast solving real problems and yielding results that will really make a difference. I want to have a job like that.

As if deciding to pursue a career in engineering wasn't a profound enough result of the internship, I took several other lessons back home with me. The West Coast lifestyle wowed me with its dramatic departure from my small-town New Hampshire comfort zone. I learned to love and navigate the Bay Area. I learned a lot about living and interacting with other people – and gained a whole new appreciation for all the dishes my parents do. I discovered the value of looking beyond what everything is; what it could be is entirely more exciting. Trying to balance this new understanding with my pre-existing pack-rat tendencies is the new challenge. My room isn't big enough to hold all the treasures I found in the basement.

Most importantly, I learned to persevere with confidence. As the only girl in our group of InvenTeams interns (not to mention a 16 year-old with experience limited to high school classes), I was honestly intimidated when I started, and I was overwhelmed when everyone at work seemed older, wiser and smarter. I frequently felt like I was more of a hindrance than help, and confused instead of learning.

Disturbed and anxious, I called home several times to tell my parents this. But when I recounted my daily experiences, I found myself adeptly explaining the technologies and presentations I was supposedly so confused about. I realized that this uncertainty actually caused me to absorb an incredible amount of information that I might otherwise not have. I began to welcome (and even seek out!) intimidation. Moral of the story: Feeling intimidated is actually a good thing once you learn to appreciate it as such. If you don't surround yourself with people you can learn from (frequently the older, wiser, and smarter), how will you ever improve?

I'll take all of these important lessons with me as I start my freshman year at MIT this fall. In the meantime, they're proving useful during my gap year between high school and college, while I intern with the Lemelson-MIT Program and pursue my private pilot license. I also kept my Squid Labs experience in mind as I toured India and volunteered in Senegal, where the lesson on looking for what things can be spoke to me in entirely new ways. While in Senegal, my host sister Khadi passionately described to me her desire to go to university. After speaking (in French) to her and her mother about the important opportunities that could come from Khadi's formal education, we brainstormed ways to finance it. As we solved that and other challenges, I saw the transformation of a motivated girl's impossible dream into a motivated girl's reality. Sound familiar?

As it turns out, the lessons I've learned through the Lemelson-MIT Program's mission extend far beyond science and engineering. And now, because I understood the importance of "exciting, empowering, and encouraging" my host sister, she is studying business, management, and communications at Senegal's premiere business university.

After the current adventures are over, perhaps I'll take up residence next to the Wienerschnitzel drive-thru for another internship at Squid Labs, this time bringing with me the whole new collection of lessons that I learned from my host sister.

Like all mind-blowing experiences, I'm left in the aftermath of the summer, wondering what hit me. It's been seven months since I left Alameda, and I haven't yet figured out how to answer that question. I'm starting to realize, though, that maybe words just can't do it justice.


Massachusetts Institute of Technology