From the Minds of Babes, Things You've Never Thought of but Probably Should Have

updated 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/24/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

American ingenuity is alive and well for at least another generation. That was made plain in a national invention contest conducted by the classroom newspaper Weekly Reader. It drew an astonishing 80,000 entries from junior Edisons, proving that, when it comes to better ideas, light bulbs are flashing in schoolyards right across the U.S.A.

Among the winners announced this month, the youngest is Katie Harding, 5, of Calvertville, Ind., a kindergartner at Bloomfield Elementary School. Early each morning, her big brother, Lee, 7, treks down the driveway in the winter darkness to await the school bus. "One time Lee missed the bus because he stepped in a mud puddle," Katie says. "I thought a light on his umbrella would be good." Their mom, Gaile, promptly glued a flashlight to an umbrella "like Katie told me," and the rest is history. Katie's "Mud-puddle Spotter" earned her a $250 savings bond, a certificate and front-page fame in the local press. Her response: "Well, it was neat."

Suzie Amling, 7, a first grader at the Village School in Auburn, Ala., was concerned with safety. Led by their teacher, Mrs. Arlene Smith, Suzie and her classmates had to walk two-thirds of a mile along a main road to reach the library. "To keep children together when they are away from school," as Suzie put it, she conceived of the "Line-leader and Keeper." Assisted by her dad, an Auburn University horticultural professor, she designed a long, wired-up rope with a series of suitcase handles attached. Pupils hold the handles, and if anyone strays by releasing a handle, a black box held by the teacher at the head of the line buzzes a warning. The four-judge contest panel awarded Suzie the grand prize, elementary-school category, which brought a framed certificate, a $500 savings bond and a trip with her parents and twin Kate to Washington, D.C.

Jim Wollin, 14, an eighth grader in Lake Mills, Wis., invented a bottomless jar. "My mom always complains she can't get to the bottom of jars to get stuff out," he explains. So Jim took two peanut-butter jars to a local factory, had the bottoms cut off, taped the two top halves together and—behold!—a jar from which the contents can be removed from either end. "I think it's kind of a dumb idea and maybe I shouldn't bother," he told his mother, Kathy, who replied, "It's so simple it might just win." Mom was right. Jim received a $250 savings bond for his "Jar of Plenty," which the judges found to be a plenty good idea.

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