All posts by Pronita Mehrotra

About Pronita Mehrotra

Pronita Mehrotra is the founder of MindAntix, a startup focused on enhancing creative thinking skills. She can be reached at pronita_at_mindantix.com.

Growth and Creativity Mindsets

As a graduate student, Carol Dweck was deeply influenced by Martin Seligman’s work on understanding depression. In experiments conducted in the 1960s, Seligman found that when animals are given a painful stimuli without the ability to control the situation, they become passive – a condition he called learned helplessness. This sparked Carol Dweck’s interest in human, and more specifically, student motivation.

She noticed that not all people show learned helplessness when faced with adversity and asked, “Why do some students give up when they encounter difficulty, whereas others who are no more skilled continue to strive and learn? One answer, I soon discovered, lay in people’s beliefs about why they had failed.

Her work with students over the next several decades led to the theory of Growth Mindset, which is now transforming educational outcomes. She found that students who believed that their abilities can improve with effort (growth mindset), outperformed those who believed that their intelligence is fixed (fixed mindset). This effect held for different subjects areas including math and science.

Growth mindset is especially important in creative work since such work often requires higher levels of perseverance. As she points out, “In a poll of 143 creativity researchers, there was wide agreement about the number one ingredient in creative achievement. And it was exactly the kind of perseverance and resilience produced by growth mindset.

But there is also growth mindset about creativity, or in other words, the belief that creativity is not innate and can be developed just like any other skill. Research studies have found that when it comes to Creativity – people can hold both a fixed and growth mindset at the same time. They view great creative accomplishments, or Big-C creativity, as a fixed trait and believe that smaller levels of creativity, or little-c creativity, is malleable. In other words, people believe that Einstein was successful because he was exceptionally gifted but their own (limited) creative potential can be improved by putting in effort.

In an approach similar to the growth mindset, we teach children in our programs how their brain works as an associative engine and how that can help in coming up with creative ideas. In other words, everyone is capable of becoming more creative with some effort.

Apart from growth mindset, Creativity is also influenced by other beliefs and attitudes that help in different aspects of creative problem solving (collectively referred here as the Creativity Mindset). Some of these attitudes, and how we try to encourage them, are highlighted below.

Openness

Openness to Experience, which includes six dimensions, has been found to be the strongest and most consistent trait to predict creative achievement. One dimension, intellectual curiosity, has been found to be the best predictor of scientific creativity. Openness leads to the ability to seek diverse information and reconcile multiple perspectives which then often results in unique solutions. We encourage openness by building a collaborative environment where students take each others feedback and perspectives in improving their own solution.

Non-conformity

Having a non-conforming attitude means having the confidence to pursue ideas outside the mainstream norms. It helps people find uniqueness in their ideas, an essential component of creativity. One activity we use in building a non-conformist attitude is challenging commonly-held assumptions. We play games where students pick an assumption, reverse it, and find ways and situations in which the reversed assumption would be useful.

Playfulness

Being playful means taking things lightly and having an exploratory approach. A playful attitude enables flexible thinking and has been found to correlate with creativity. To build playfulness, we often use improv games as warm-up exercises.  The cognitive processes that underlie improv are the same as those used in creative thinking.  A research study found that improv comedians produce 25% more creative ideas than professional product designers.

 

In the end, both the growth mindset and the creativity mindset result in behaviors that are essential for high creative accomplishments. By fostering these mindsets in children and teaching them creative thinking skills, we can give them the tools to unlock their full potential.

Abstract Thinking in Problem Solving

Why does the Narwhal have a spiral in its tusk? While many people had wondered about this, the most rational explanation came from D’Arcy Thompson, Scottish biologist and mathematician.

Thompson’s explanation for the spiral was that each stroke of the narwhal’s tail produced not just a forward motion but also a twist that made the narwhal go slowly around it’s own horn. While some of Thompson’s theories were proven wrong, he found many interesting reasons for different shapes and forms in nature. His book, On Growth and Form, laid the foundation for the field of morphogenesis, the process by which body structures are formed.

One of the reasons that Thompson was able to find interesting patterns in nature, was because of his ability to abstract simpler elements from the form of an animal or plant. As Stephen Jay Gould, who was inspired by Thompson’s work, explainshe tried to explain form by reducing its complexity to simpler elements that could be identified as cause.” In other words, his abstraction abilities helped him understand the underlying causes of different forms in nature.

So, what is abstract thinking? There are two aspects of abstract thinking – simplifying by removing details to find salient features, and generalizing to find the core essence. The ability for abstract thinking underlies creative and complex problem solving in many different domains. 

Jeff Kramer, Professor of Computer Science, noticed over his 30 years of teaching that some students were able to handle complexity better than others. They were able to understand distributed algorithms more easily and produced more elegant models and designs. In his words, “What is it that makes the good students so able? What is lacking in the weaker ones? Is it some aspect of intelligence? I believe the key lies in abstraction: The ability to perform abstract thinking and to exhibit abstraction skills.

The ability to abstract plays a key role in creative problem solving as well. Tina Seelig, Professor at Stanford University and author of InGenius, notes that reframing a problem by asking “why?” can open up a whole new set of solutions. For example, by reframing  “How should we plan a birthday party?” to “How do we make this a special day?” can open up a whole new set of possible ideas.

Reframing a problem typically involves moving to a higher (or more general) level of abstraction. Two ways to reach a higher level of abstraction is to ask ‘why’ or find a category that a given concept belongs to.   

We created our new brainteaser, ‘High and Low‘ to build the ability for abstract thinking and make students comfortable with navigating different levels of abstraction. The brainteasers give a routine activity and the goal is to find one or more ‘High’ and ‘Low’ levels for the activity. The ‘High’ level corresponds to the more general level of abstraction while the ‘Low’ level corresponds to the more specific one.  

Liberman and Trope, describe how the high and low level descriptions can fit into a pattern, “superordinate, high-level descriptions of an activity fit the structure “[description] by [activity]” whereas subordinate low-level descriptions fit the structure “[activity] by [description]”.” For example, if the activity is ‘reading a book’, a high-level description could be ‘learn new things’ (I [learn new things] by [reading a book]) while a low-level description could be ‘by flipping pages’ (I [read a book] by [flipping pages]).

Our goal with these brainteasers is to build this crucial skill of abstract thinking early on through simple exercises. In a recent trial, we were excited to see 8-9 year old students solving these exercises appropriately and being able to apply abstract thinking in reframing problems. We hope that by starting to use abstract thinking in different areas, students will be able to handle complex problem solving more easily later in any domain. 

How Neurodiversity Helps in Creativity

As a child, Isaac spoke little and had trouble reacting appropriately in social situations. He found it hard to form friendships and preferred to spend time alone. He lacked the ability to understand the motives of others’ and was prone to having angry outbursts.

If you saw signs of autism in the description, you are probably right. But you might be surprised to know that Isaac grew up to have a successful career. Isaac, as in Isaac Newton, laid the foundations of classical mechanics, made significant contributions to optics and even developed Calculus!

Simon Baron Cohen, psychologist at the University of Cambridge, believes that scientists like Newton and Einstein likely had Asperger’s syndrome (a high functioning variant of Autism Spectrum Disorder).

If Newton was indeed on the spectrum, did his condition help him or hurt him in his intellectual pursuits?

A growing area of research, Neurodiversity, shows that some of the common neurological conditions actually help in certain situations and may have evolutionary advantages.

Recent research has found that disorders like autism, ADHD and Dyslexia can be beneficial when it comes to creative thinking, a skill that is becoming increasingly important. We certainly see some evidence of that in our work with our diverse student population.

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism is primarily characterized with challenges in social relationships and deficits in the “theory of mind”.

However, Scott Barry Kaufman, author and professor at University of Pennsylvania, explains that people with ASD do care about others and desire connection – they just do it differently. As he writes, “Perhaps instead of viewing people with ASD as “socially awkward” individuals who need to be “fixed,” we should instead conceptualize them as socially creative. They may not do things the “right” way, but they do them their way.

Outside of social situations, people with ASD have show differences in cognitive creative thinking. For instance, in divergent thinking tasks, people with ASD produce fewer but more original ideas. Contrast this with the conventional guideline of “one needs to generate lots of ideas to get to the more unique ones“. Since the goal of brainstorming is to end up with creative ideas, autism seems to confer some efficiency in this process.

Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD is characterized by three key groups of symptoms: hyperactivity, impulsivity and distractibility. But these same traits are also helpful in some tasks.

Bonnie Cramond, director at the Torrance Center for Creativity and Talent Development at the University of Georgia, found that the set of traits used to identify ADHD were nearly identical to the set of traits for creative people. 

Recent research has also confirmed the link between ADHD and Creativity. The part of the brain known as the Default Network or the Imagination Network, becomes active during the passive or rest phase and plays a crucial role in creative thinking. In people with ADHD, the brain structure responsible for filtering data from the Imagination Network is “leaky” leading to a more diffused attention style along with more creative thoughts. As Prof. Kaufman explains, “Both creative thinkers and people with ADHD show difficulty suppressing brain activity coming from the “Imagination Network.” 

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a reading disorder characterized by difficulty with reading, writing, spelling and grammar, and affects from 5 to 20 percent of all school children.

In dyslexic readers  brain areas (in the left hemisphere) used in recognizing letters and words, and  in sounding out words are under-activated but the parts of the right hemisphere become more active to compensate. That might explain why dyslexics are better at visual spatial skills, out-of-box thinking and holistic perception – skills useful in creative and entrepreneurial work.

In a survey sent to entrepreneurs and corporate managers, Julie Logan, professor of entrepreneurship at Cass Business School in London, found that 35% of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic compared to only 1% of corporate managers. Richard Branson, one of most famous dyslexic entrepreneur, has often commented that far from being a disability, dyslexia has been his biggest business advantage.

 

To clarify, in highlighting the strengths associated with these disorders we do not intend to trivialize the challenges faced in more severe forms of these disabilities. We hope that by understanding the cognitive strengths that accompany these conditions, we can create better environments for different neurotypes to work together and be productive. As Thomas Armstrong says in his book, Neurodiversity, “diversity among brains is just as wonderfully enriching as biodiversity and the diversity among cultures and races.

How To Think Like A Scientist

Wilson Greatbatch was an American engineer and inventor, who had more than 150 patents to his name over his lifetime. His most famous invention is the implantable Pacemaker, which has saved countless lives since it came out. But it almost didn’t happen!

Greatbatch was working on a device to record heart sounds, when he accidentally installed the wrong resistor and realized that the device was now giving off rhythmic electrical pulses. He realized at that moment, that he had hit on something important. Pacemakers before that time were bulky devices that worked on power mains, but Greatbatch’s discovery showed that they could work with battery and could be made small enough to be implanted.

While this may seem at the surface to have been an accidental discovery, Greatbatch was really thinking like a good scientist. Kevin Dunbar and Nancy Nersessian, have studied scientists and their thought processes for many years, and have distilled the core thinking patterns that underlie creative scientific thinking. Here are a few strategies and techniques that they believe lead to better scientific accomplishments:

Unexpected Results

Accomplished scientists have often mentioned the role of chance in leading to a discovery. But what distinguishes great scientists from average ones is how they pursue the unexpected results. As Dunbar explains, a good heuristic to go by is, “If the finding is unexpected, then set a goal of discovering the causes of the unexpected finding.

To investigate an unexpected finding, scientists have to pay attention to the finding and recognize that it could lead to some new learning first. It turns out that some scientists have a tendency to make serendipitous discoveries. Sandra Erdelez, a scientist at University of Missouri, has been studying this for many years and found that some people, called the encounterers, have a tendency to stop and “collect” useful or interesting information they bump into. Based on their individual differences in bumping into unexpected information, she classifies people into three types – non-encounterers, occasional encounterers and super-encounterers.

Analogical Thinking

One of the most useful cognitive techniques frequently used in science is analogical thinking. Rutherford-Bohr’s analogy between solar system and atoms or Newton’s analogy between projectiles and moon helped those scientists construct a better model.

Analogies have helped with different aspects of scientific thinking like generating models, designing experiments or formulating hypotheses. As Dunbar explains, “We have found that rather than trying various permutations on a question, the scientists search for a similar problem that has been solved and seek to import its answer to their current problem.” The advantage of analogical thinking, is that it helps the scientists come to a solution quickly by avoiding iterative trials.

Imagistic Reasoning

Imagistic reasoning makes use of images to help in analyzing and understanding a phenomenon. For example, Faraday’s starting point in constructing his field concept was using an image to represent the lines of field like those that form when iron filings are sprinkled around a magnet. By using a more idealized representation through an image, he was able to capture the underlying model.  

Nersessian believes that imagistic reasoning, along with analogical reasoning and thought experiments are part of “abstraction techniques” and help construct a model of a scientific concept.

While most people are familiar with analogical reasoning, As Nersessian explains, “…there are numerous cases that establish the prominence of reasoning from pictorial representations in the constructive practices of scientists who were struggling to articulate new conceptualizations. Such imagistic representations have often been used in conjunction with analogical reasoning in science.

 

Research in over a decade has demonstrated the significance of these cognitive techniques and strategies in science, and should be included in science education.

We are excited to launch a new middle school science program in partnership with Positive Ally, starting this coming academic year. Our goal is to bring these cognitive techniques to the forefront to build deeper understanding of scientific concepts and help students apply their thinking in solving real world problems.

Summer Camp: Applications in Thermochromism

We just wrapped up our summer camps for this year and are excited to share some of the interesting inventions our students came up with! This year we collaborated once again with Archimedes school (who taught 3D printing), and explored a newer STEM area – smart materials.

A smart material changes its physical property in reaction to its environment. The reaction could be a change in volume, color or some other material property and is triggered by a change in the environment (e.g. temperature, stress, electrical current).  In other words, “…this material has built-in or intrinsic sensor(s), actuator(s) and control mechanism(s) by which it is capable of sensing a stimulus, responding to it in a predetermined manner and extent, in a short or appropriate time and reverting to its original state as soon as the stimulus is removed.”

Smart materials are being used in a lot of interesting applications including smart wearables, aerospace and environmental engineering. In our camps, we experimented with one kind of smart material – thermochromic paint, or paint that changes color with temperature. Some common examples of products that use thermochromic paints are mood rings and baby spoons.

Thermochromic paints use liquid crystals or leuco dye technology. After absorbing a certain amount of light or heat, the molecular structure of the pigment changes in such a way that it absorbs and emits light at a different wavelength than before. After the heat source is removed, the molecular structure comes back to its original form.

In our camp, we tried out different ways to change temperature and induce color change in the pigment like body heat, friction, warm light bulbs and electrical current (with high resistance wires). After the students had a chance to play with thermochromic paints, they started the process of coming up with different applications that would benefit from thermochromism.

Students used a variation of mind-mapping, and techniques like associative thinking and challenging assumptions to come up with several different ideas that could use thermochromic paint in a meaningful way. As last year, students found that by using these creative thinking techniques they could come up with 2-3x more ideas. Then they picked a final idea (after evaluating all the ideas on different criteria) to build their prototype. Quite a few of students also 3D printed their prototype (or at least parts of the prototype) by themselves!

As we expected, student ideas were all over the map. Here is a sample of some of the ideas our campers came up with:

  • Electronics: Quite a few ideas were related to overheating of electronic devices so users can take a break from their device. These include cell phone cases, stickers or attachments for laptops and gaming devices.
  • Thermometers: We had a few interesting thermometers for sensing indoor, outdoor and body temperature. For instance, a soft headband to put on babies and little children that can sense when they have fever – very handy to keep track of when to give the next dose of mediation!
  • Baking: One student made a flexible band that goes around baking dishes and can help you keep track when the dish has cooled down and is safe to eat from. A couple students also made multipurpose gloves that could be useful during baking or other activities.
  • Outdoor Activities: Students also created some interesting products like icemakers, tents and even shoes that could warn their users when it’s getting too warm.

We also had a bunch of interesting ideas like an animal shelter/cage (to help the staff easily figure out if its getting too hot for the animal), fun outdoor sunglasses, a cover for steering wheels and cupholders.

What was most heart-warming though, was to see the sense of accomplishment in these students for coming up with their own idea, following it through with prototyping and proudly presenting it on the last day!

Stanford Innovation Lab’s Sock Challenge Results

One of the most well-known divergent thinking problem is the Alternate Uses (AU) task where you come up with different ways to use simple, everyday objects. Professor Tina Seelig, who teaches Creativity and Innovation at Stanford University, often uses challenges that build on the AU task for her students. The goal is for students to build both creativity and entrepreneurship by learning to look at an old thing in new ways, and create some kind of value from it.

We recently participated in Stanford Innovation Lab’s (SIL) Sock Challenge, where students had to create value out of mismatched socks. With students from C-Pillars Academy (most of them between 7 and 10 yrs), we used a session to try out the sock challenge one afternoon.

As expected, we got a range of ideas from our students – some common and some original. Five of our student entries were selected and showcased by the SIL team – ideas that we would have picked as well! Here is what we liked about these particular entries.

Mental Transformations

Creativity comes from the mental transformations you make to an existing object or concept to adapt it to a new situation. At one of the spectrum, you could generate ideas that use very few (or no transformations) by simply using a key aspect of the object. An example of this is using the sock as a bag to hold different objects. This doesn’t really require any big mental leaps since a sock resembles an elongated bag and the overall shape of the sock triggers that idea quickly.

On the other extreme, you could do a lot of transformations (typically to get down to the material the object is made of) till there is no longer any resemblance to the original object, and then create something different from the material. An example of this is cutting the sock(s) open and then using it to make a T-shirt or a sweater. In essence, these ideas use the sock as a piece of cloth out of which you can now fashion many different things and it doesn’t really matter that you started out with socks.  

Both of these extremes produce ideas that are not very creative, but the ideas in the middle – the “Goldilocks Ideas” – are where interesting things happen. These are where the transformations preserve some essential properties of the original object, and the changes are applied very thoughtfully to allow the object to be used in a different situation.

The Sock Ball Game created by one of our students is an example. The goal of the game is to toss the colored ball into the matching colored pouch. The bottom part of the sock was cut at the right place to make pouches and the top part of the sock was converted carefully into colored balls to make the game work. The Arm-Warmer is another such example, where another student made holes at exactly the right places (leveraging the heel of the sock for the thumb part) to make the design work.

Remote Associations

Another aspect of Creativity is being able to combine unrelated ideas, or associational thinking. The cloth diaper idea is an example of making a connection with a third world social issue of using simple pieces of cloth as diapers. The idea proposes using old socks to add an additional, absorbent layer on the cloth to make better diapers while reusing socks. The idea stands out since it combines a concept that you don’t normally associate with socks to make something useful.

Elaboration

Elaboration measures the amount of detail and flourishes added to the core idea to make it more complete. Elaboration helps clarify and articulate an idea which results in a better understanding, and often leads to improvements in the core idea. The headband and purse created by two students are great examples of elaboration for this challenge. The headband uses extra parts of the sock to make the flower decoration and the purse uses rolled up pieces of sock to make the handles. And of course, the beautiful designs just make you want to use them!

 

Our students had a lot of fun working on this challenge and we look forward to doing more of these in the future!

 

Thought Experiment: A Creative Exercise in Science

One day at the Cathedral of Pisa, Galileo who was still a teenager, watched a chandelier that a monk had just lit swinging in an arc. Using his medical training, he started timing the motion and discovered that even though the swing got shorter and shorter, the time of each swing stayed the same. That observation so excited him, that he rushed back home to experiment with strings and weights, and it eventually led to a life long fascination with pendulums and motion.

But one of his most interesting discoveries, one that was incorporated in Newton’s first law of motion,  was not the product of direct experimentation. It was his ability to imagine a scenario that was almost impossible to replicate in real life. It’s what Ernst Mach later called as a Gedankenexperiment, or a thought experiment.

Galileo realized that without friction, a ball rolled along a double incline plane will reach its original height on the other side just like a pendulum (Fig. a). He then asks to imagine what would happen if one side of the double inclined plane is made longer. The ball will then travel a longer distance till it retains its original height (Fig. b). In the limiting case of infinite length, the ball would continue rolling since it can’t reach its original height (Fig. c). This completed upended the Aristotelian view of motion that the natural state of a body is that of rest, and motion requires some force.

Thought experiments have played a significant role in the history of Science from Galileo to Einstein. Scientists expand knowledge of a concept, by creating mental models and running virtual experiments on them. In fact, cognitive scientists believe that people reason by carrying out thought experiments on internal mental models.

But more than that, thought experiments are essentially a creative exercise. Creativity at its core is about playing with models – changing different aspects or adding new associations – and iterating to find a better solution. Whether it is using SCAMPER to manipulate an attribute or reversing an assumption, creative thinking provides ways to manipulate mental models in a quest to discover breakthrough ideas.

As Nancy Nersessian, an expert on model-based thinking in Science, explains, “While thought experimenting is a truly creative part of scientific practice, the basic ability to construct and execute a thought experiment is not exceptional. The practice is highly refined extension of a common form of reasoning. It is rooted in our abilities to anticipate, imagine, visualize, and re-experience from memory. That is, it belongs to a species of thinking by means of which we grasp alternatives, make predictions, and draw conclusions about potential real-world situations we are not participating in at that time.

While the role of thought experiments in advancing scientific knowledge is undisputed, what is lesser known is its role as a pedagogical tool up until recently. After dropping out of the rigid school system in Germany, Einstein found the perfect school in Switzerland, where Johann Pestalozzi‘s methods in visual and conceptual understanding were used.

It was there that Einstein first engaged in a thought experiment that would make him the scientific genius of his time. As he told a friend later, “In Aarau I made my first rather childish experiments in thinking that had a direct bearing on the Special Theory. If a person could run after a light wave with the same speed of light, you would have a wave arrangement which could be completely independent of time. Of course, such a thing is impossible.

It’s unfortunate that over time thought experiments as a pedagogical tool have been dropped from science education. Students now spend most of their time learning facts and running predefined experiments as opposed imagining and framing their own thought experiments. Perhaps by re-introducing thought experiments, more students will find science engaging and stimulating, just like Einstein. 

 

Inventor Spotlight: Suhani Nog

Our inventor this time is Suhani Nog, whose team invented the multi-functional scissors in one of our earlier camps. The team’s invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education.

Here is Suhani talking  about herself and her ideas.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Suhani Nog and I am a 7th grader at Evergreen Middle School. My favorite subjects are math and science. Some hobbies I have are playing squash, reading, and drawing. I had a lot of fun at this summer camp learning about creativity and brainstorming.

What is your invention and how does it work?

Our invention was called the Switch-It-Scissors which was primarily made for cutting through different materials. The blades of the scissors can be swapped for a different kind of blade which is better for the task at hand.

How did you come up with the idea?

When our team was discussing ideas, one problem that came up a lot in our daily lives had to do with scissors. Whether we were cutting through cardboard, paper, or an intricate design, the same scissors could not be used. The blades were not small enough, strong enough, or sharp enough.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

For our prototype we cut out cardboard and covered it with felt and duct tape to resemble the blades which were attached together at the bottom making it slide apart and together. We created a couple of different blades using cardboard covered with aluminum foil. The blades could be slid into a socket at the end of the handles.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

One very important skill I learned from this camp was how to be creative and be original. The best designs are not complicated but simple. Using everyday problems, the most important inventions are the ones which can solve the problem the easiest.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

My best memory from the camp would be all the creative acting games we played in the morning. These activities really boosted up my creativity level and allowed me to think up original solutions to problems.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

When I grow up, I am thinking about going into biology which is a field of science which I really enjoy. When I grow up , I am going to solve problems to make others’ lives better in the future. In this field, problem solving and creativity will really come into play.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I will use my prize money to buy more resources to continue my love of science and math.

Congratulations to Suhani for her great work! We look forward to seeing you solve more problems!  

Partner Spotlight: Thomas Howell at Positive Ally

Positive Ally, a leading after-school enrichment program in Washington, is one of our early partners. Amandeep Narula, the founder of Positive Ally, launched his after-school program after he got frustrated trying to find quality enrichment options for his own children. He wanted a place that would help working parents raise their children with the leadership and life skills essential for a successful life. Aman’s goal is to make his students grow into strong, compassionate individuals who can not only tap their own creativity effectively, but also inspire others.

As Aman explains, “What use is creativity without one’s brilliance being harnessed for social good? And how can you do so without first knowing how to control your environment which includes people, including yourself, more than any other thing? After all you can’t do everything on your own so you need people to help you do your thing. And who will willingly work for a foul tempered, tantrum throwing, genius for very long? What we need in society are creative people who know how to advocate for their points of view, who can get along with people and inspire them to be creative too, who are emotionally even headed, and work to remain healthy both in mind and body. And this person then will be able to solve some real hard problems whether in the sciences, or the arts!”

After we first ran the “How To Be An Inventor” class, Positive Ally decided to incorporate the program as part of their core curriculum. Our program, which teaches creative thinking, coupled with Positive Ally’s program provided a great opportunity for students to learn and practice these important life skills.

Thomas Howell, one of the teachers at Positive Ally, modified our curriculum to run the program as a game in Shark Tank style this year and the students loved it! In fact, students would often ask him – “Is today the inventor day?”

When we heard about his session, we reached out to him to see what we could learn from him. Here are some of the ideas he shared about how he ran the program:

  • Pick a topic that excites students – While discussing the project, Thomas found that most of his group was interested in toys and games (this was after all the holiday season). Instead of forcing a different topic, he leveraged students’ interests and their group decided to focus on inventing new toys and games.
  • Keep the end in mind – As a high-school teacher in Canada in a prior life, Thomas had seen first hand how effective Project Based Learning (PBL) can be and is now a huge believer in the PBL approach. As Thomas explained, one thing that helps students be engaged in a project is by telling them early on what the end would look like. Once he told the students that there will be a big presentation at the end where parents are going to vote on the best game, student motivation jumped significantly. And the friendly competition among different groups motivated each group to do their best.
  • Show connections between concepts and project: As part of the program, students encountered many new concepts like Associative Thinking and Zwicky Boxes. Thomas made sure that as students learned a new concept, they could tie it back to the project. He also gave them relevant examples for the topic. For instance, he told them how Satoshi Tajiri combined his hobby of collecting bugs as a child with game design to create Pokemon, as an example of Associative Thinking.

At the end of the program, students had some very interesting creations for their final demo day. One group made their own board game with five nations five nations that compete for resources and have their own history. Another group made body armor with bows and arrows and were fully decked for the demo day. A third group made a pretty complex playset to go with Minecraft figures.

But most importantly, they had a lot of fun learning, collaborating, building and presenting their own creations!

Inventor Spotlight: Abhishek Vaidya

Our inventor this time is Abhishek Vaidya, who came up with an idea to make better turn signals on bike handles. His invention won a national level award as part of the “Student Ideas for a Better America” competition organized by the National Museum of Education. He designed the bike handle as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

Here is Abhishek talking about his idea in more detail.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Abhishek Vaidya. I am in the 5th grade Quest program at Lake Washington School District. I like to play tennis and run track. I enjoy writing narratives and math.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention is an advanced bicycle handle. I found that most people crash on bikes when they are using their hand for turn signals. Some people do not even bike on streets because they are not comfortable with taking their hands off the bicycle handle to give turn signals. My invention solves that problem by putting buttons on the handle right above where your thumbs will be. The buttons each activate a light on the back and front of the bike showing which way you will turn, kind of like a car’s turning lights.

How did you come up with the idea?

One day, I was looking out the window and I saw a really cool looking motorcycle. The biker was going wobbly trying to use turn signals. That sparked an idea which led to another until I came up with the bicycle handle idea.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

Yes, my prototype worked. It was a bicycle handle made of paper, with a pressure sensor on the handle bar.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

I learned that creativity has no bounds. I enjoyed thinking outside the box and coming up with ideas to use technology to solve simple problems.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

My favorite memory of the summer camp was creating 3D printing models on a software called Sketchup.

What kind of problems do you want to solve when you grow up?

I would like to use my creativity to come up with solutions to problems faced by underprivileged people, especially children.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I will save my prize money in my bank account that my father opened for me. It will be my emergency stash.

 

Congratulations Abhishek for a well deserved award! We love your goal of helping underprivileged children and wish you the best.