Iowa STEM Blog

Friday, December 12, 2019

Earlier this year, Charles Smith of Ottumwa, Iowa, appeared on Good Morning America with his award-winning invention, the Benge Beacon. The device, created to help firefighters keep track of exit points in burning buildings, brought more than just Charles’ dedication to and passion for inventing to the national stage. It also showcased the importance of a STEM education and the potential future opportunities for Iowa students.

Charles started his inventing process with his parents for the local invention convention. Susan Smith, his mom, shared the process with the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. After being selected as part of the top five inventors in his local convention, Charles applied for the state level. At the Invent Iowa Invention Convention, Charles placed third overall for kids between kindergarten and fifth grade. That sent him to the national competition. There, he placed first in the kindergarten division—and eventually made his way to the Good Morning America stage.

While Charles explored the world of inventing and STEM, Susan was there every step of the way. Her story, as the parent of a kidventor, has lessons for every parent hoping to inspire a love of STEM in their own children. 

Tip One: Start with Your Child’s Interests

Charles created the Benge Beacon to help firefighters stay safe in very unsafe conditions. He’s always been interested in firefighting, so it was a natural fit for him. On encouraging Charles through the process, Susan said, “It was pretty easy, actually, because he was excited about the project. Because he’s loved fire stuff since he was one. It made it his project, not ours.”

Tip Two: Get Creative with Everyday Activities 

STEM is all around us in the world. From baking to budgeting and beyond, there are nearly endless opportunities to study STEM in everyday life. Susan and her family try to incorporate it in different ways. Charles recalled one experiment where they tested the difference in volume between two glasses. He was surprised by the results—the shorter, wider glass actually held more water. It was simple, but it stuck with him.

“It doesn’t have to be a time you set aside and say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a science experiment.’ You can look at everyday activities you already do and utilize those,” Susan said. “It doesn’t have to be an official STEM experiment to help families learn.”

Tip Three: Turn to Your School for Resources

The STEM skills Charles learned in school helped him create his original invention. Right now, his class is learning about nature and building a terrarium. But there’s so much more to it than that.

“He’s got an amazing school. He does have some enrichment classes they pull him out for, but the entire school is great,” said Susan. “We love it. They’re giving him a great education.”

At his school—and schools across the state—students have access to STEM Scale-Up Programs offered by the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council. These programs are designed to help students build their interest in STEM and they range from teaching robotics to concentrating on the basics of a STEM education. 

When you or your child are interested in learning more about the opportunities to engage with STEM, turn to your school to see what is offered. 

With his STEM education, curiosity and passion for inventing, it’s clear that Charles has a bright future. But he has one little tip of his own for helping kids get involved in STEM: “Make it fun!”

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