Student-led Invention Program Expands to Reach Nontraditional Learning Environments

Like many K-12 non-profits, the Connecticut Invention Convention faced significant challenges from COVID-19. An organization that reaches more than 25 percent of Connecticut students during their K-12 career, the Connecticut Invention Convention had historically reached its students through in-school programs. When schools were forced to go virtual, this strained the Connecticut Invention Convention’s capacity to reach students in the state. And in 2021, for the first time in decades, its year-over-year total program size shrank.

But the Connecticut Invention Convention shouldered through, and just months in 2022, it has already reached more than 11,000 students, nearly double its impact in all of 2021. With its renewed success, the Connecticut Invention Convention likewise has a new perspective on future growth.

“Like a lot of non-profits, the pandemic was a learning opportunity for us; COVID-19 forced K-12 organizations to evolve or be left behind,” says Nick Briere, Executive Director of the Connecticut Invention Convention. Nick has been involved in the program since first grade, when he first participated as an inventor.  “What we committed to ourselves – and the students that we reach – is that the changes we adopted throughout COVID-19 wouldn’t be acute or temporary, that we’d use them to help evolve and grow the organization to meet the needs of a changing world. And that’s where VELA really stepped up.”

A collection of CIC inventors mid-pitch as they demonstrate their innovative solutions and products. (Courtesy CIC)

The Connecticut Invention Convention used VELA funds to trial a new program – its Virtual Inventors Club – which is designed to be a crucial component of its overall independent inventors program. This program is designed to allow students participating in Invention Convention at-home and without the structure of a community organization or school to participate directly in the program and competition. The Inventors Club is hosted twice weekly, bringing free innovation programs to several dozen home-schoolers and other students who would not otherwise be able to participate. This marks an important shift in the way the CIC expects to deploy programs in the future.

“The number of students desiring to participate in our program through non-traditional formats has skyrocketed,” says Nick. “These students also tend to be disproportionately successful at our State Finals competition. We’ve begun directly implementing programs to reach these students, through initiatives like our Virtual Inventors Club. But we’ve also begun to reach into non-school community institutions that can help deploy them as well.”

The Connecticut Invention Convention’s 2021 class was the most diverse in its history, with more than a third of inventors identifying as inventors of color and well over half (58%) identifying as female. But the CIC feels that in order to better reach and serve students under-represented in STEM, it will have to partner with non-traditional learning institutions, like Boys & Girls Clubs.

“As our organization grows to place a larger emphasis on reaching students historically underrepresented in STEM, we feel that reaching into communities through community-based groups will be critical. This means adapting our programs to more seamlessly integrate into community centers, Boys & Girls Clubs, and even religious institutions, like synagogues and churches. It also means providing more direct resources to students that are participating independently and without any guiding community structure through programs like the Virtual Inventors Club.”

The Connecticut Invention Convention has an ambitious goal of growing the percentage of non-traditional program participants from 1,000 per year to 5,000 per year over the next five years. To do so will require a significant expansion of its community partnerships, as well as its direct program offerings. “Program partners that understand this need for programmatic flexibility are critical. And that’s where organizations like VELA have really been incredible. They’ve stepped up when we needed them most.”

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