The next big breakthrough

Published 7:37 pm Saturday, January 2, 2016

Take a look at the patent sketches of Orville and Wilbur Wright, and you’ll see strokes of brilliance.

The black-and-white, hand-drawn patterns give insight into the intellectual prowess and engineering genius of two brothers who changed human history through their flying machine. The sketches are precisely drawn, each section numbered and described.

The patent drawings look so simple today — one glance at them and it’s easy to think, “of course, that idea makes sense.” We have the perspective of history on our side.

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But Orville and Wilbur’s accomplishment started at a more unfamiliar place. The Wright brothers were in their early 30s when they had their first successful flight at Kitty Hawk, but they started tinkering much earlier than that.

According to the Wright Brothers Memorial, when they were kids, their father came home with a gift and tossed it in the air. “Instead of falling to the floor, as we expected, it flew across the room till it struck the ceiling, where it fluttered awhile, and finally sank to the floor,” the brothers said.

The gift was a model helicopter powered by a rubber band, and it grabbed hold of the brothers’ imagination.

Orville and Wilbur Wright were just kids when they started to discover the possibilities of flight. They had parents who gave them the opportunity to explore, whether a small model helicopter or access to their family collection of books or by encouraging their use of tools. The brothers had the freedom to try and fail, test and retest until, eventually, they made a breakthrough.

The same spirit of innovation is alive in our country today. All across our nation, children are tinkering and questioning, testing and retesting. If you look closely, you’ll see.

It looks a lot different today than Orville and Wilbur’s experience on the farm. Children in our nation today build with technology. They build websites. They create apps. They learn code. They build virtual cities. They create 3D animations.

And the same curiosity that existed in the Wilbur brothers’ minds exists in the minds of our nation’s youngest citizens today.

Our job as a nation is to support this creative process by encouraging students to get involved in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) at an early age. Innovation is essential to our nation’s ability to compete in a global economy, especially in STEM fields.

As we develop their interest in those subjects, it allows them to see that what they enjoy doing — like playing on computers — is an opportunity to make a living.

Americans have always thrived when given the opportunity to do what they love best. I believe our youngest generations are no different. That’s why I’m excited about opportunities like the Congressional App Challenge, a nationwide event that allows students from across the country to compete by creating and exhibiting software applications, or “apps,” for mobile, tablet, or computer devices on a platform of their choice.

The Congressional App Challenge reinforces the important role that STEM education plays in the future of our students and of our nation. But most importantly, it creates a safe place for students to explore and discover. It engages students’ creativity, and encourages their interest and participation in STEM fields.

Students or teams of students from Virginia’s Fourth District have the opportunity to submit their creations to this competition.

I’m also proud to have supported legislation like the STEM Education Act of 2015, H.R. 1020, which expands the definition of STEM education to include computer science. Steps like this help spur economic development through the diffusion of technology and information, and better equip our students to push our country towards a brighter future.

How do we invest in the American dream? We start by allowing our young people the opportunity to learn and explore.  We give them the freedom to try and fail, test and retest. We toss opportunities towards them until something grabs hold of their imagination.

And we recognize that somewhere amidst that process of discovery is a child who is making steps toward a breakthrough, perhaps one that will change the course of human history.

Congressman J. Randy Forbes represents Virginia’s Fourth District, which includes Suffolk, in the U.S. House of Representatives. Visit his website at