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An Interview with Arthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation

Starting out

Arthur Daemmrich, director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, wants to empower students to think critically and creatively, well beyond the limits of their classrooms. His work examines the emergence of technology-based industries, explores the relationship between regulation and innovation, and compares international innovation systems.

But that’s not where he started.

While he was always interested in the histories of science, medicine, and technology, Daemmrich began his career researching pharmaceutical regulations and the evolution of the clinical trial process. However, that research soon gave way to his interest in pharmaceutical innovation – examining how drugs are discovered, tested, and brought to patients – a process historically dominated by large corporations.

“In the late 70s, there was no way I as an individual could start a company and get a new drug to market,” Daemmrich said. “And then suddenly in the early 80s, we had the rise of the biotech sector. What we thought were barriers to entry, the impossibility of starting a new pharmaceutical firm, seemed to go away. You had university professors getting funding and starting new companies, some of which have grown to scale and brought new medicine. There’s an amazing invention and innovation story in that sector.”

COVID lesson 1: preparing the next generation to lead public health initiatives

Daemmrich understands more than most how inadequacies in the country’s public health infrastructure contributed to problems addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. “We repeatedly failed to invest in public health in the way we should,” Daemmrich said. He observed the average human lifespan is nearly 80-years old, and expects to exceed that number in the coming decades. Dammerich said the importance of public health measures can’t be overstated in pushing that number upwards.

“A huge amount of those gained years have to do with public health measures. Safe, clean, cheap, free, or very inexpensive drinking water is a huge breakthrough. We take it for granted in the United States, but it’s not at all prevalent around the world. Access to clean air. The air we breathe has a huge impact on lifespan.”

Daemmrich said training today’s young people to manage tomorrow’s public health initiatives will help combat future pandemics. “There’s any number of general public health measures that are quite important, and training people and having a population for that is key,” Daemmrich said.

COVID lesson 2: Adapting in real time

Still, developing sound public health initiatives is only part of the solution. Daemmrich said the accelerated development of effective vaccines is just as important. “We’ve had an incredible pace of [developing a vaccine] in this case,” Daemmrich said.

In addition, the medical profession’s ability to innovate throughout the pandemic has helped to reduce the number of deaths relative to the number of people who contract the disease. “We saw a lot of innovation around ventilators and breathing apparatuses,” Daemmrich said. “But in the end that hasn’t become the primary treatment method for people with the disease. Hospitals have figured out other protocols that promote maximum life gain and have become quite effective at treating patients.”

It comes as no surprise that combining all three approaches – promoting public health initiatives, quickly developing effective medicines, and learning to address practical realities in real time – will position future generations to address health crises. Communities must approach medicine, “As not just the pharmaceuticals or the chemicals we put into our bodies, but the holistic approach to how you treat patients and how you care for people with the disease,” Daemmrich said.

Teaching innovation

Daemmrich believes divergent thinking and creative problem solving are skills critical to innovation, but lacking in the classroom. “Invention is about putting things together in unique and different ways,” he said. “It’s open-ended problem solving.”

As a result, he’s sometimes frustrated with school assignments that are either too rigid or too vague. “Overly prescripted assignments bore kids to tears, and overly open-ended assignments at a certain young age actually leaves kids without knowing what to do,” Daemmrich said.

The goal, then, is to teach students how to balance the two extremes.

“We want kids to understand that inventors don’t just wake up with ideas in their heads,” Daemmrich said. “They are very systematic about how they work. They constantly record ideas, and they test. And then they tweak and modify. Almost never is the initial sketch, the initial design, the initial prototype what the final product is going to be.”

Learning outside the classroom

After meeting with countless inventors, Daemmrich has concluded that developing sound thinking skills outside the classroom is “critically important.”

“Any number of inventors I’ve talked to have only the barest, slightest memories of what they did in middle school and high school in class,” Daemmrich said. “But they have vivid memories of something they built at home. The robot they built at home is still in their mind.”

Because learning outside the class is so important, educators and parents alike should guide students toward independent, hands-on innovation. “What we can do to encourage kids outside the hours of school to continually tinker, build, experiment, make things physical, really makes a huge difference,” Daemmrich said. “Anything other people can do to get kids physically making things will really make a huge difference in the future.”

Reaching underrepresented audiences

Through his work with the Lemelson Foundation, Daemmrich hopes to bring his approach to innovation education to minority and underrepresented audiences. He noted that although admission to the National Museum of American History (where the Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation is headquartered) is free, “there’s no question that there are kids that are literally in walking distance, two miles from the museum,” who have never been inside.

“There are communities in southeast D.C. where it is not part of the local community’s pattens, behaviors, and awareness that the museum is there, is open, and that they are welcome,” Daemmrich said. “Museums have a legacy of not being welcoming to minority populations. Our museum is working very hard now to change that perception.”

Daemmrich is also working to promote inventors and innovators of color as role models.

“We know that textbooks and other teaching materials have predominantly featured white male scientists and white male inventors,” Daemmrich said. “They aren’t inspiring the diversity of the next generation to see this as something that is open to them. We’re very actively seeking to broaden who people see as role models. The good news is that there are tons out there.”

Spark!Labs from coast to coast

One of the initiatives Daemmrich is leading to broaden invention education is Spark!Lab, a series of hands-on activity centers where visitors learn the process of invention and innovation. Partnering with nine museums and learning centers around the country, Spark!Labs provide interactive activities for children and families to explore their inventive creativity, helping them to develop the thinking skills Daemmrich knows are essential to today’s students. The goal, he said, is to “provide places for kids to go and invent and make stuff.”

Daemmrich knows programs like Spark!Labs are essential to promoting to power of invention education.

“The goal is to generate thousands, millions of young people who understand themselves to be inventive, and who understand that invention goes beyond engineering and physical technologies into other areas, so that they see it as a place they can impact and change the world with,” Daemmrich said.

This summary was produced as part of the Invention Education: Portraits, Strategies, Starting Points podcast series. The STEM Learning Ecosystems Community of Practice and the Lemelson Foundation have partnered to bring you this series of critical conversations on the importance of invention education.

Photo of ArthurArthur Daemmrich, Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study and Innovation

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/arthurdaemmrich

Arthur Daemmrich is the Jerome and Dorothy Lemelson Director of the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. Located in the National Museum of American History, the Lemelson Center carries out historical research into invention and innovation, develops educational programs to inspire the next generation of inventors, and creates exhibits that engage some 4.5 million museum visitors annually. Before coming to the Lemelson Center, Daemmrich was an associate professor at the University of Kansas School of Medicine, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, a visiting professor at the China Europe International Business School, and a research fellow and director of contemporary history at the Chemical Heritage Foundation. He holds a PhD from Cornell University in Science and Technology Studies and a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in the History and Sociology of Science.