Inventing a New Kind of Pencil

So you want to do some inventing? Well then, ask a student in your class to volunteer showing a pencil to the class that needs improving? For example, a pencil like this:

image of an ugly pencil

Then ask the following question:

What's wrong with this pencil?

Here are some typical replies:

Don't forget to say some of those encouraging words. And remember, be non-judgmental, do not allow any criticism, and quickly jot the ideas on the board. Then ask "How can we improve this pencil?" What new features can we add to make it more useful. Here are some more ideas.

Kids Inventions!

After getting half a dozen or so more idea, I dig into my box of pencils and pull out one to fix one of the above mentioned problems. Usually someone notices the lack of an eraser, so I like to show a pencil that has two erasers on the end.

image of a pencil with two erasers
Invariably someone blurts out that it looks like a hammer. Yes, perhaps you might find one like this in your doctor's office! Then I go around the room testing some student's knee reflex, and imitate writing down on a clipboard. "Yup, your reflexes are fine!"

Again, I look into my box of pencils, and find another one to fix to either the same problem, or a different one. For example, I show how to add an eraser, using those arrowhead shaped erasers. I also have a pencil I made with a sharpenable eraser on the end that I like to show. I pass these various examples around.

At this point, I may point out the pencil/pen attached to my shirt. It has a small string attached to it, and a small clip on the end.

image of a pencil with a leash: image not available
I show this to the class, and describe how it was made. I drilled a hole on one end into which I screwed a small eyescrew, used for example to hang a picture up. A string is threaded through and on the other end is attached a clip retrieved from an old handbag. In my pen example, I even drilled a hole in the cap, so I don't lose the cap. I demonstrate its utility by doing some imaginary signing of a room pass, and forgetting to put my pen away, and when I walk away, the pen follows me. My students and most adults seem to be fascinated by this invention.

Maybe even this pen can be marketed today! The only pen I found with similar capabilities, purchased at my local drugstore, has the string attached only to the cap. You can still lose the pen, so my invention is an improvement.
Usually, the students are clamoring to see more of what is in my box of pencils, and so show them some of these:

image of a pencil with a built in magnifying glass
Invariably, they ask me how these are made. For example, the lens for this pencil was retrieved from a broken camera that someone gave me. He dropped it into the ocean, and it could not be fixed. So I've made use of the various parts. One lens is in this pencil, another lens in front of the photocell is in front on another invention of mine, a light sensor for the blind. Etc.

One of my first inventions!

I invented this in 7th grade. It is not a pencil, but a "minimalist" pen. It consists simply of a pen refill with a paper clip stuck in one end, which serves as the pen clip. Unfortunately my English teacher saw me fooling around with it too much, laughed at it and then took it away. I tell my students this discouraging story, how I felt, and that I would never laugh at their inventions like this teacher did.

image of a pen refill with paperclip stuck in one end
I then ask "Could you have invented these? What ideas do you have for a new pencil. Often, the younger the student, the more creative they are, because the lack of the ability to judge, is the basis of creativity! Here are some more ideas I've gotten from my students:

image of a pair of chopsticks with erasers on one end

Enough ideas for you?

Well, now is the time for getting the class to do improve their critical thinking skills. For example, ask the class:

The process of inventing is going back and forth between the two thinking states: creative/non-judgmental versus critical/judgmental.


Eraser inventions!
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Pineapple Middle School

This is a good book: The Pencil: A History of Design and Circumstance. by Henry Petroski. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.
History of the Pencil
How Pencils are made
Last updated 3 July 2004

Copyright © 1995-2004 by Duen Hsi Yen, All rights reserved.

Original 1995 webpage