Meet Katy Olesnavage


Katy Olesnavage is an inventor. She’s also a mechanical engineer. She designs and builds inventions that help people who are missing one foot or both feet, walk naturally with prosthetic feet or legs. “Prosthetic” means that it is not a real body part. It’s artificial. One of her inventions, the Jaipur Foot, is a low-cost design to help improve the lives of people in India.

How Did Katy Become an Inventor?

Katy liked to build things when she was about your age. She wanted to be a robot one Halloween. Instead of buying a costume, she built her own robot costume! She made her costume light up with a sign that said, “Trick or Treat!” When she received a treat, she had her robot show another sign that said, “Thank you!”

How Did She Do That?

Katy made her Halloween costume light up by making an electric switch! She made her switch with a paperclip and metal brads. When the robot flipped, it lit up transparency sheets with the words “Trick or Treat” and “Thank You.” Katy didn’t stop making things after her costume. Next, Katy wanted to make a small hovercraft. A hovercraft combines a boat, airplane, and helicopter. It “floats” on top of trapped air. Hovercrafts can float over land and water.

What Did Katy Use to Make Her First Hovercraft?

Katy built her first hovercraft with parts that she already had around her home. Katy used a tissue box, a shop vacuum, and a shoebox car with a special motor. The motor in Katy’s shoebox came from a ballerina doll’s twirling platform that Katy repurposed.

When one object is used in a new way for a new purpose, that is called “repurposing.” Katy repurposed her doll’s twirling platform to be the motor for her shoebox car. Later, after playing with her shoebox car for some time, Katy repurposed her shoebox car to be part of her hovercraft. Katy repurposed the doll’s twirling platform motor twice!

INVENTION WORD ALERT! What does repurpose mean? This is a word made up of a prefix, re-, and an existing word, purpose. The prefix re- means “again.” We can add a prefix to a word as a shortcut to its meaning. “Repurpose” is a shorter way of saying to purpose something again. Can you think of two words that start with the prefix re-? We added two words that start with the prefix re-. Can you think of two more words and write them here? What do these words mean? Be careful. There are words that start with the letters “re” that are not a prefix. Redo means do it again. React means to act again. ________________ means to _____________________________________________. ________________ means to _____________________________________________.

Inventors often use their imaginations and repurpose things which means to use them in different ways and for a new purpose. Inventors repurpose things to make new things! Sometimes they turn what they see in nature into new things. Sometimes, something will inspire an inventor. Then they will use their imagination to make something brand new. Here are some examples:

  • Paper and an adhesive that didn’t stick well became Post-It® notes.
  • Soft, moldable material developed and used for a wall cleaner became Play-Doh®.
  • Cockle-burs and their hooked attachment inspired the invention of Velcro®.
  • Batman’s grappling hook inspired the invention of the rope ascenders.

Let’s practice thinking like Katy and other inventors. How could you repurpose things in your recycling bin: Box_________________________________________________________________
Yogurt container______________________________________________________________
Plastic bottle_________________________________________________________________
Oatmeal container ______________________________________________________

Back to Katy’s Story

Katy didn’t build things all by herself. Katy’s dad helped her. He was a teacher. He taught electronics to high school students. Have you heard the word, “electronics?” Electronics are in a lot of the products we buy today. They are in our cell phones, cameras, ovens, refrigerators, and televisions. Electronics include sensors. Sensors help us to know about the world around us. There are temperature sensors. There are light sensors. Katy’s dad let her play with the LEGO® sensor kits he used in class. She made simple robots with the LEGO kits.

Katy joined the robotics team when she grew up and went to high school. Being on the robotics team was so much fun! Katy had a goal. She thought, “Someday, I will study mechanical engineering. I will focus on design!” She loved learning! She wanted to take upper-level math and science classes to help prepare her to study mechanical engineering. Her school did not have the classes she needed. Did that stop her? No, it did not.

What Did Katy Do?

Inventors are persistent – even young inventors like Katy. What did she do? She did not give up on her goal. Instead, she got help! Katy’s teachers helped her. They gave her advice. They gave her the important books she needed. With their support, Katy taught herself the exciting upper-level math. Katy took math and physics classes at a local university while she was still in high school!

INVENTION WORD ALERT! What does “persistent” mean? This means that you keep working at a challenge, even when it is hard to do so. You don’t give up when things are hard. Inventors are persistent when they attempt to solve a problem but their solutions don’t work. They keep working to solve the problem but in a different way. Inventors pay attention to what went wrong. They make small changes. Inventors try again. If it doesn’t work, they repeat their steps. They see what went wrong, make small changes, and try yet again. Inventors go through this again and again until they solve the problem. It may take 10 times. It may take 100. That is what it means to be persistent.

Can you think of a time when you were persistent? Think about learning the letters in the alphabet. Did you have to say the alphabet over and over until you got them right? What about learning how to add and subtract numbers? Say your multiplication tables? Do you play a sport? Could you kick a goal in soccer the first time you played? How about learning to play a musical instrument? Write about or draw a picture of a time when you were persistent.

I was persistent when…__________________________________________________________

Back to Katy’s Story-Again!

After high school, Katy went on a big adventure. She went to a university far from her home in Michigan. She finally got to study mechanical engineering! Katy made friends, played soccer, and got to practice solving real problems in the world. Katy earned three degrees in mechanical engineering from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and her PhD.

While Katy studied at MIT she learned of an important and sad problem. Katy learned that there were people in the world who had gotten injured so badly, that they no longer had a foot. The prosthetic, or artificial, foot that these people used did not work very well. Katy wanted to help these people. She designed a new type of prosthetic foot to help people walk more naturally. Katy’s effort to solve this problem was such good work, that she was awarded the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize. Watch a video about Katy and her invention.

Katy: Mechanical Engineer, Problem Solver, and Inventor

Katy didn’t stop inventing with just one useful and unique invention. She had others, too. She invented a modular, remotely operated underwater vehicle. Katy and a team of other inventors designed a way to measure tissue damage and provide information to help doctors see where injured people are hurt. She also invented a way to see where freshwater was seeping into the ocean from an island. Freshwater was needed for people and was wasted. She helps many people by being an inventor.

Did you think that Katy would be an inventor when she designed her Halloween costume? The robot Halloween costume was just a starting point. She’s been creating things and learning new things ever since. She loves solving problems! She loves helping people by using her mechanical engineering skills to design solutions to their problems. Katy improves peoples’ lives.

What Will You Invent?

Follow the Invention Cycle to help you become an inventor.

Invention cycle: find and define problems, inquire & research, design, build & test

List of Problems to Solve!

Inventors look for problems to solve. Collect problems you see right in

your home. Think about things that bug you. Ask your family about the

problems or things that bug them.

Some problems I want to solve are:











Hands-On Activity Challenge

Do you have ideas for solving one or more of these problems? Consider researching one of the problems and your solution. Who would benefit from your solution? Can you draw what your invention would look like? Do you have simple materials like cardboard, tape, and pipe cleaners that you can use to make a “looks like” model of your invention?

We encourage you to post your invention ideas and solutions to the “Share Your Invention” Forum. We’d love to see what you’re working on!

Perhaps you want to practice making things before you make your invention. Design Squad Global has lots of great activities for making things. Start out with easy designs to build. Tackle more difficult building projects in the future. Remember, inventors are persistent. Don’t give up when something doesn’t work the first time. Also, inventors repurpose things. You may not have the exact materials at home that are listed for each activity. Repurpose other materials. Substitute what you do have for things you don’t have. And remember, inventing is just plain fun!

Extend the Learning