Ramapo College of New Jersey - Invention: Creative and Legal Perspectives

In this course, students form E-Teams and develop prototypes to solve problems based on everyday needs. The purpose of the course is to motivate students to invent, and supply them with the minimum expertise necessary to produce, market, and protect an invention. One E-Team from the pilot course, Photoworks, received Advanced E-Team funding to continue development of their inexpensive device for viewing, modifying and printing photos from positive or negative film. Ramapo's limited resources limit the frequency with which the course is offered, but it remains popular and quickly fills to capacity when available.

Invention: Creative and Legal Perspectives
Improving a new invention course with an experiential focus, open to all majors

Program goals and structure
Professors Phil Anderson and Cherie Ann Sherman used an NCIIA planning grant to fortify a new invention course for students from all majors. The purpose of the course is to motivate students to invent, and supply them with the minimum expertise necessary to produce, market, and protect an invention. The course is experiential, and stresses “doing,” rather than lectures.

Most of the students enrolled in the improved course’s first semester were science majors, but, as the instructors had hoped, in subsequent semesters the course has drawn students from various other majors as well, including communication and nursing.

Students and faculty supply ideas for inventions based on everyday needs. The students form E-Teams around ideas culled from the initial group. Students keep lab notebooks, where they document their inventions in words and drawings. Witnesses sign the entries, to protect the students' intellectual property.

Student E-Teams are required to develop their inventions from conception to prototype, and to present their work to the class and to a panel of external evaluators. As part of this process, students:

  • search prior art to make sure their inventions are original
  • write partial patent applications
  • create a drawing and a prototype
  • develop a marketing plan
  • visit manufacturing plants and trade shows

Professor Anderson says, “We focus heavily on the patent side of things. Students learn about every aspect of the patent process, and they really enjoy it.”

History and context
At the time they applied for the grant, Professors Phil Anderson and Cherie Ann Sherman were in their first semester of team-teaching a new course at Ramapo College, entitled Invention: Creative, Social, and Legal Perspectives. The course, open to all majors, was the first of its kind offered at the College. The grant aimed to expand the course into two semesters, allowing students greater opportunity to develop their ideas through the process of production, marketing and protection.

As of this writing, Professors Anderson and Sherman have taught the course four times by convention means, and once as a distance course. Students formed E-Teams that met independently, and much communication and learning was accomplished via chat rooms. Anderson says that the response to the internet-based distance course was good, but that students complained that the three-week intersession in which it was offered was too short to achieve the course objectives.

E-Teams
The course instructors allow students to group themselves into E-Teams of three to five, according to their interests. The instructors recommend that the students seek out diverse sets of talents in the teams.

Although students tend to gravitate toward other students from the same disciplines, Professor Sherman says that the diversity of majors in the course worked out “better than you might think.” She says that sometimes it was necessary to give non-technical students some one-on-one instruction. “The non-technical students have a lot of good ideas,” she says, “but they may need extra help in understanding how things work technically.” For example, one student presented an idea for a combination washer-dryer in which clothes would pass through the machine automatically, but she needed to learn the basics of how such equipment works. Sherman says, “I think this kind of learning was very beneficial for the non-science students—not just the technical aspects of the machinery, but learning how to take apart a problem.”

The biggest limitation on course-based E-Teams, says Anderson, is that they usually disband quickly after the course ends, because their members graduate. “Ramapo students have many gen ed requirements to fulfill. The way we make room for this course is to make it a senior seminar, which is one of their requirements. The flip side is that everyone participating in the course is a senior, and doesn’t have a chance to follow through. The members of one very successful team were all offered fellowships to go to grad school, so they were out of here. But, they have a patent application in, and we hope that either they will pick up the project again, or we can get another E-Team started on it.”

Innovative and entrepreneurial outcomes
For Professors Cherie Sherman (Information Systems) and Philip Anderson (Physics), this course was a first experience in collaborative team-teaching. The interdisciplinary approach proved rewarding to the professors and, based upon evaluations, to the students as well.

E-Teams started during the course include:

  • Saniseal Can: A can with a removable seal that keeps the lid sanitary
  • Virtual Cycler: A stationary bike with a video monitor providing virtual terrain
  • Aircraft Cooling System: A solar-powered cooling system with intake and venting fans located in existing wing vents
  • Photoworks: An inexpensive device for viewing, modifying and printing photos from positive or negative film

The Photoworks group displayed its product at the Smithsonian exhibit, during the NCIIA Annual Conference. “It was a great experience for them,” says Anderson. “They were rewarded for their hard work with lots of recognition, including many people saying that they wanted to buy the product. It was also a big hit here at the institution, among student sand faculty, because of all the press attention. Glamour is an easy sell—the team’s work inspired other students to move ahead with their inventions.”

As a result of the course, some students have formed an Invention Club. The club has a number of very enthusiastic members, who have pushed for affiliation with other clubs in the School of Science, the School of Business, and the Economics and Physics departments. “The Club produces some really far out ideas,” says Anderson, “but the level of enthusiasm is high. The best part is that it’s all student-generated. I believe that when we next seek funding for our projects, it will be based in these student-generated activities. That’s really how it should be.”

Challenges and lessons learned
Professors Anderson and Sherman enjoy teaching the Invention course and feel that it is valuable to Ramapo students. Each session is limited to twenty-six students, and the course fills quickly every time it’s offered. However, they are constrained by the college’s limited resources, allowing the course to be offered only occasionally. Anderson says, “We are hoping that the course will fit into a new general education slot. If this happens, we can offer the course to sophomores, who will be able to follow up on their experience and pursue Advanced E-Team funding in their last two years at Ramapo.”

Because this course was the first of its kind at Ramapo College, the instructors spent considerable time investigating potential legal issues. Some students who were interested in developing their inventions commercially were reluctant to share their ideas with the class. In response, the instructors required that the students keep lab notebooks documenting and dating their work, and that all students sign a nondisclosure agreement for each classmate’s presentation, of which the College kept a copy. Anderson says, “We checked students’ lab notebooks from time to time to ensure that their records would protect their ideas. Since the classroom is such a public forum, we have to make sure it’s a safe place for students to share their intellectual property.”

Future prospects
Although the course has been a success, and fully enrolled every semester, the instructors have not been able to offer it often enough to meet student demand. “The problem lies in our college’s resources,” says Sherman. “We each have heavy demands placed on us by our own departments, which means that we cannot offer the course as frequently as we, and the students, would like.” Because of these demands, Anderson and Sherman have not yet expanded the course to two semesters, as they had hoped.

One possibility under consideration is an Engineering Physics major that might allow room for invention courses. A modified version of the course will soon be offered to MBA students, and Sherman and Anderson hope that, if the Invention course becomes a general education course, they will be able to offer it to sophomores, offer it more frequently, and possibly even expand it to two semesters.

Bibliography

  • Feinberg, Rick, Peculiar Patents: A Collection Of Unusual And Interesting Inventions From The Files Of The U.S. Patent Office. Secaucus, N.J.: Carol Publishing Group, c1994.
  • Pressman, David, Patent It Yourself, 4th Ed. Berkeley: Nolo Press, 1995.

Video series:

  • The Secret Life of Machines
  • The Inventors, Out of Their Minds
  • Connections

Supplementary materials
1. Syllabus
2. In-class assignment: “Thirty Often-Asked Questions and Their Answers for the Amateur Inventor”
3. Writing Patent Claims, homework assignment
4. What to Include in Your Brochure, handout
5. Requirements for Final Project, handout
6. Sample Income Statement, handout
7. Using the World Wide Web for Locating Patent and Entrepreneurial Information, homework assignment
8. Creativity, homework assignment
9. The Business Plan, Powerpoint slide presentation
10. Building a Thingamajig, homework assignment
11. Patent Drawing, handout
12. Estimating, homework assignment
13. How Much Should You Get for Your Invention? handout
14. Product/Market Evaluation, Powerpoint slide presentation
15. Marketing Your Invention, Powerpoint slide presentation
16. Claim Drafting, handout
17. Three Types of Problem-Solving, in-class assignment
18. Patent Searching, handout
19. Drafting the Specification, handout
20. Invention Team Evaluation Guidelines