Book Review: A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM

How do some people accomplish so much? TIME magazine’s first-ever Kid of the Year, Gitanjali Rao, gives us a glimpse of her techniques in A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM: 5 Steps to Problem Solving for Students, Educators, and Parents. As with everything she does, Gitanjali Rao delivers a great guide to the innovation process. 

Because of her great accomplishments and high visibility, Gitanjali Rao gets many questions from students about her technique for having great ideas and making them a reality. In this book, Rao says she wants to “equip a young inquisitive minds looking to develop innovative solutions, with resources, tools, and tips, to help carve out his or her own journey that is unique to each individual.” A Young Innovator’s Guide to STEM walks us through her innovation process step-by-step in her clear, enthusiastic way. The tone is so positive and encouraging for those who want to know more and do more with STEM problem solving. I wish I had this book years ago, both for my own projects and for working with students.

This book is packed with her innovation model, her personal stories, practical tips, and inspirational messages. Gitanjali gives us a clear, easy-to-follow structure, beginning with an overview of her three-step innovation process: Discover, Solve, Implement. She then takes apart each of these three phases into well-organized chapters. She wisely off-loads some parts of the process with references to other resources to go deeper or to go further. Anyone following these steps is well on the way to creating a worthwhile innovation.

Rao has a unique perspective as a teen innovator and a very successful scientist-engineer-inventor. She writes this book as a young innovator for other young innovators. Parents and educators will also find this book very useful, both in working with students, and in picking up some advice and techniques we may have missed along the way. There are many excellent ideas in this book.

For example, in her Research chapter, she introduces the concept of a Weighted Rating Matrix, which many people, including me, didn’t learn about until they were adults. She explains this useful tool step-by-step using the example of rating an Olympics gymnastics event. Other gems like this include an Ishikawa fishbone diagram for systematic observation and analysis of cause-and-effect, and a 4-fold feasibility diagram of the type used by management consultants. 

Other features I liked included her quick tour of emerging technologies, such as 5G Wireless, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and more. Her chapter on Building also lists “Tools and Techniques,” such as overviews of microcontrollers and microcomputers, sensors, wireless communication, and 3-D printing, plus more. These overviews are very helpful in getting the big picture quickly and then deciding where to focus in more detail.

Rao includes a section for educators outlining lesson plans aimed at teaching these skills. The entire book is a blueprint for teachers and science educators like me for helping students build STEM skills. She provides icons to signal helpful tips, lesson plan ideas, workspaces and worksheets. One of my favorite features is science snapshots, quick vignettes of innovative teens making a difference. The brief resources section includes excellent directions for going further. With so much information and great resources, an index would be helpful.

Her introductory chapter on “My Journey” tells how she got started inventing at an early age, encouraged and supported by her parents. Her parents inspired her to read widely and to think about global issues. They posed innovation problems at the dinner table as an exercise and a game for Gitanjali and her brother. She tells of learning about the crisis in Flint Michigan with the lead-contaminated drinking water, which, like all of us, she found appalling. Unlike most of us, she set out to invent something to solve the problem. This led to her entry into the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist challenge with her innovative device for detecting lead levels in drinking water. She has continued along this path ever since, entering many STEM contests, encouraging students, especially young women, to get involved in STEM, and conducting workshops on her innovation process. Her other inventions include a snake-bite venom indicator, a cyber-bullying prevention app, and an app designed to identify potential for opioid addiction. And she is still in high school as of this writing—July 20, 2022. You can read more about Gitanjali and some other young scientists and engineers in my book Teen Innovators.

Upfront, I need to say that I am a big fan of Gitanjali Rao and have had the privilege of interviewing her. She is genuine, energetic, and brimming with ideas—just like her book. I would urge anyone interested in learning more about how to approach problems using a STEM approach to read this book. It is so worthwhile.

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