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2003 Lemelson-MIT Survey Also Finds Teens Need Encouragement From Parents, Teachers to Invent

Cambridge, MA, January 21, 2003 — While it may seem that technology gadgets are Americans’ most coveted items, teens and adults agree that the toothbrush is the one invention they cannot live without. The 2003 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey of Americans’ perceptions about inventing and innovating, uncovered that technologically advanced items such as personal computers, cell phones and microwave ovens significantly lag in importance behind the toothbrush, which was developed in the 15th century.

When asked to select the invention they could not live without from among five choices – toothbrush, automobile, personal computer, cell phone and microwave – more than a third of teens (34%) and almost half of adults (42%) cited the toothbrush. The automobile ranked a close second, getting votes from 31% of teens and 37% of adults.

Of the remaining choices, teens ranked the personal computer third (16%), the cell phone fourth (10%) and the microwave last (7%). Adults deemed the remaining choices equally important; the personal computer (6%), microwave oven (6%) and the cell phone (6%) tied for third place.

Teens are Inspired to Invent but Seek Encouragement from Elders
The survey also revealed that teen creativity leads to inventive ideas. In fact, more than a third of all teens (36%) reported having a great idea for a unique invention. Interestingly, boys are far more likely than girls to develop innovative ideas (44% boys, 27% girls).

When asked what would motivate them to take the next step in developing ideas for a unique invention, nearly half (43%) of the teens surveyed agreed that encouragement from parents or teachers is the key.

Boys Considering Invention as a Career, Girls Less Interested
Encouragingly, boys are showing interest in science and invention as a career choice. When asked what they would like to be when they are older, a famous inventor (19%) was the second most popular career choice among boys. Becoming a famous athlete (42%) ranked first, with a famous actor (18%), a famous musician (16%) and the President of the United States (13%) placing third, fourth and fifth, respectively.

And, although girls’ performance in science and math has improved greatly in recent years, the survey found that girls ranked inventor (10%) at the bottom of their list of career choices. Becoming a famous actress (32%) ranked first, followed by a famous musician (24%), a famous athlete (22%) and the President of the United States (17%).

“We are encouraged that teens are showing greater interest in invention,” said Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program. “The challenge, however, is for parents and teachers to provide teens with the support and encouragement they require to take the next step in turning their ideas into reality. Parents and teachers may be more influential than they realize in fostering creative thinking and innovation among young people.”

Other issues explored by this year’s Invention Index survey include:

  • Impact of invention on U.S. leadership: The majority of teens (88%) believe invention and innovation will have a highly significant (32%) or significant (56%) impact in helping the U.S. maintain its leadership position.
  • Reasons to consider becoming an inventor: Boys and girls agree that the two most important reasons to one day become an inventor are to improve the quality of life and to have fun. Two-fifths (42%) of teens surveyed chose each of these answers.
  • Events attainable in this lifetime: The majority of teens (56%) and adults (60%) believe that finding a cure for cancer is achievable during their lifetime as a result of invention. In addition, more than a quarter of teens (29%) and over a third of adults (35%) think that solar-powered cars will replace all gasoline-powered cars.

About the Study
The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index has explored Americans’ perceptions about inventing and innovating since 1996. Previous topics that have been covered include:

  • Most important invention of the 20th Century (2002)
  • Young Americans attitudes toward inventors and getting involved in invention and innovation (2001)
  • The importance of parents' and teachers' role in fostering invention and innovation in today's youth (2000)
  • The most profitable career areas for inventors (1999)
  • Areas of research and development supported by American taxpayers (1998)
  • Inventions that make life easier or more complex (1997)
  • Inventions Americans could not live without (1996)

The 2003 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Survey was conducted by Taylor Nelson Sofres Intersearch from a nationally representative sample of 1,042 adults and 400 teens. The interviews were conducted between November 20-30, 2002.

About the Lemelson-MIT Program
Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program’s mission is to raise the stature of inventors and innovators and to foster invention and innovation among young people. It accomplishes this by celebrating inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards, including the world’s largest for invention — the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by The Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno.

1 Totals are less than 100% due to some respondents selecting a category marked “other.”
2 Totals are more than 100% due to some respondents selecting more than one career choice.

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