Quick: Name three African American inventors.
If you’re drawing a blank after George Washington Carver, you’re not alone. And if you’re under 18, you may have piped up with Michael Jordan, Kanye West, and Lil Wayne. Those are the names Warren Woodberry hears on a regular basis from his students at the Woodberry Park Inventors and Art, an after-school program focused on African-American history held at the Frederick Douglass Center at 1001 Indiana Ave.
He’s working to change those answers — and to open the eyes of local children from ages 7 to 18 about the importance of invention. “America needs inventors and creative thinkers,” he says. “Let’s celebrate the inventors in our history and in our midst today. Kids need to know that African-Americans have played an incredible role in the history of invention.”
A passion for inventing
Woodberry’s passion for inventing arose as a result of living in Antigua with his wife, Yolanda, an artist. “There are no Walmarts on Antigua. You can’t just run to the store if you need something. Living there, we had to learn how to make do. That’s how inventions happen.”
Woodberry’s classes are a lively mix of the past, present, and future of inventions. Rather than focus on dry timelines and facts, he brings things like electricity, telecommunication, and transportation to life via stories. One of the most popular is that of Lonnie Johnson, a NASA engineer who invented the Super Soaker, “the AK47 of squirt guns,” according to Woodberry. Medical pioneers include Dr. Vivien Thomas, who developed the procedures to treat blue baby syndrome, and Charles Drew, who discovered how to separate blood cells from plasma, crucial to successful storage and transport for blood banks.
Stories naturally cross racial boundaries; in addition to these and many other pioneering African-Americans, kids study inventors from all ethnic backgrounds. For instance, there’s that belief held by many kids that Michael Jordan invented basketball. Nope. Dr. James Naismith, a native Canadian, needed an activity for teenagers confined to gyms due to harsh winters. When he mounted peach baskets on poles above their heads, they got game.
With that grounding in the past, Woodberry Park Inventors can boldly explore the future. “A lot of the kids, especially the boys, come up with crazy things like cell phones with laser beams shooting out of them. But one girl drew a refrigerator, an alarm clock, and a chicken. She said her parents would argue because her mother always forgot to thaw the chicken for dinner. So we got to work on a timer that automatically helps the mom remember to thaw the chicken, and then we get rid of the arguments, too.”
Woodberry Inventors and Art has no textbook, and is not currently a part of the general school curriculum. Woodberry hopes to change that. Meanwhile, there is no tuition fee. Find out how you can enroll your child in the course and/or help support it by visiting the website, www.woodberryparkinventors.com.