The students at Akron’s National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM middle school are too young to qualify for laser eye surgery.
But they know how the technology works and how it was developed after the procedure’s inventor told them all about it.
Jim Wynne, inventor of Lasik, a corrective eye surgery used by more than 25 million people, visited the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) middle and high schools Friday as part of a series of guest speakers who inspire Akron students to cultivate creativity as they study to become scientists and engineers, and hopefully innovators.
“The goal is inspiration,” said Stephanie Pierce, a curriculum content developer with Invent Now, a North Canton-based innovation collaborative that fosters the spirit of invention in academia.
“Most kids are inventors,” Pierce said, noting that creativity diminishes with age. “Kids kind of lose that trust over time. Our goal is to recharge that trust.”
Guest speakers have been a regular component of the curriculum at the Akron STEM schools since they opened in 2010. The program is a partnership between Akron schools, the University of Akron, the city and Invent Now, which brings in speakers and works with local educators to develop STEM programming.
The group invites speakers and innovators from national competitions, as well as National Inventors Hall of Fame inductees, like Wynne, a 2002 inductee and recipient of last year’s National Medal of Technology and Innovation, awarded by President Barack Obama.
Wynne threaded whimsical — and sometimes outdated — anecdotes with clunky science during an hour-long presentation on his 1981 invention, Lasik.
Questions following his presentation ranged from, “Why doesn’t it hurt?” to a jargon-laden inquiry into the intricacy of lasers, asked by an adolescent.
“Aren’t noble gases not supposed to form compounds?” the middle school student asked of transforming Argon gas into a high intensity beam of light. The exchange between Wynne and the student was impressively beyond comprehension.
The middle school students sat quiet and attentive throughout the presentation. Their serious demeanor, broken only by applause toward the end, seemed impervious to Wynne’s humor, even when he told them that his invention was only made possible by a picked-over turkey from a Thanksgiving Day dinner in 1981.
That’s when a colleague at IBM, where Wynne, a Harvard doctorate grad, has worked on laser technology for 44 years, brought in a turkey carcass and used a laser beam to surgically remove cartilage.
The experiment left no visible damage, which led Wynne and a team of scientists to ponder the laser’s possible applications.
The laser was accurate. Wynne showed the students how he was able to etch the word “IBM” onto a human hair — not once, but twice on a single strand.
The beam minimized damage on flesh, cauterizing wounds, accelerating the healing process and nearly eliminating the risk of infection.
Wynne walked the students from the eureka moment, when they discovered the laser’s capabilities, through the conception, charting a course for experimentation by laying out real-world experiences.
The invention seemed a likely candidate for delicate surgery. Unlike previous laser eye surgery, which welded the retina to the eye by forming scar tissue, Wynne’s invention sculpts the surface of the eye to enhance vision, leaving no scar.
The whole process, from the turkey to the 200,000 Air Force and Navy pilots who can now fly planes because of the invention, amazed Gracie Kosco, who said “cool” at least twice a minute after the presentation ended.
“I thought that was the coolest part of this whole thing,” Kosco, 12, said. “They found something. And they changed the world.”
Doug Livingston can be reached at 330-996-3792 or firstname.lastname@example.org.