Did you know the term “real McCoy” referred to an African-American inventor? Or that a black traffic engineer invented the first automatic stop sign, precursor to the modern stoplight? Or that a former female slave designed a “cabinet bed” that folded up on a hinge and could also be used as a desk? Or that an African American came up with the idea for the fine carbon filament that lit Edison’s light bulb?

Unbeknownst to many people, the cultural contributions of African Americans extend far beyond entertainment, sports and politics. Which is precisely the reason for the Black Creativity Project, launched at the Museum of Science and Industry in 1971 directly “in response to the dearth of exhibits that recognized African-American achievements” (according to their press release).

“It was started by prominent African Americans who wanted our stories to be told,” said Risa Davis, an Oak Park resident and chair of this year’s exhibit. Davis, who runs the small business banking group at Citibank, was also the chair of last year’s exhibit (on the Blues). Citibank is principal sponsor of the Black Creativity Program. Bank One is also a sponsor.

Davis has been on the entirely volunteer advisory committee for the past five years. Her close friend, Gale Foster Farley, also an Oak Park resident, has been on the committee for 13 years and this year served as chair of the Jan. 29 gala, which was attended by Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, among other notables. Farley is division intake coordinator with Ada S. McKinley Community Services. She’s also involved in APPLE and Jack and Jill of America.

In the past, the annual January/February exhibit has focused on such subjects as agriculture, medicine, film, aviation, even Hip Hop.

“We pick a topic every year,” said Davis, “that is topical and of interest, that will engage families and children. We try to highlight contributions that aren’t in the everyday news and that may help inspire the next generation. We want them to ask, ‘How can I get there?'”

The exhibit, which includes a juried art show, opened Jan. 14 and closes Feb. 28. Davis said it is highly interactive. Kids learn about how to build a roller coaster and test whether their block structures can withstand an earthquake. There’s also a “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”-style quiz competition.

In addition, there are the aforementioned profiles of everyone from the inventor of the Super Soaker to Dr. Edward W. Tunstel, senior robotics engineer with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, who worked on the Mars Rover project. Tunstel will be on hand Feb. 25 as the main speaker at the exhibit’s culminating symposium.

The committee begins planning in August, Davis said. They try to choose a theme that’s not only engaging but timely. They settled on “Engineering the Future” this year because it was in keeping with the overall mission of the host museum (i.e. science and industry).

“We have a longstanding group of volunteers,” said Davis. “The founders of the project are still involved. You don’t see that level of dedication every day.”

Thousands of school-age kids visit the exhibit each year, including her son’s Cub Scout den the Saturday before last.

“We had a great time,” said Davis. “It’s the ultimate in kid-friendly exhibits.”

But with a serious intent.

“We want to help kids see that these careers are possible,” she said.

? “Engineering the Future” runs through Feb. 28 at the Museum of Science and Industry, 57th Street and Lake Shore Drive. The exhibit is included in general admission, which is $9 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $5 for children age 3-11. City of Chicago residents get a discount. Museum hours are Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 773/684-1414 for more information. The web site is www.msichicago.org.