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.

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.  

Inventor Spotlight: Neha Krishnakumar

Our inventor this week is Neha Krishnakumar, 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 what Neha had to say about her invention.  

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Neha Krishnakumar and I am a 7th grader in Evergreen Middle School in Redmond, Washington. I like solving logic puzzles and finding creative solutions to problems. I also like taking creative photographs and playing the violin.

What is your invention and how does it work?

My team’s invention idea was called “Switch-it Scissors”. This idea solves the problem of having to switch between different kinds of scissors and tools while working on a project.

The way it works is you get different types blades such as knife blades, zigzag blades for edges, serrated blades and regular cutting blades that can be detached from the handle. So the user can change the blades based on their need while working on their project. We also provide two different handle sizes for both kids and adults.

How did you come up with the idea?

The challenge that we were given was to find a creative way to make school supplies better. We chose scissors because we thought that it could have more improvement than any other supplies. While working on projects we switch between different types of scissors and it makes the whole process more tedious. Our solution will improve efficiency and make things more convenient for the user.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

We chose to use cardboard and duct tape to make our prototype. We made the different types of blades and handles by cutting the cardboard out in different shapes and sizes. Even though the prototype does not physically work, it clearly demonstrates how the end product will look and feel.

We learned a lot from the experience of building this prototype. It taught us how to collaborate as a team, share multiple ideas and have fun while building it.

What did you learn from the summer camp?

MindAntix taught me multiple creative thinking techniques during the summer camp. I used these techniques that were taught to come up with the prototype ideas. Two strategies that stood out for me are “Don’t refuse any ideas even if you don’t think they are good” and “Always think out of the box”.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

I enjoy problem solving and this camp gave me an opportunity to work on that. My favorite part was when all of us presented all our prototypes to the parents and other audience who were invited on the last day of the camp.

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

I like to focus on solutions for making tasks easier than they are. It does not matter if these tasks are trivial or complex. No problems in this world should be ignored as we can always make our lives easier with better solutions.

What will you be using your prize money for?

This prize money is my first income in life. I really cherish it and I decided to add this prize money to my savings account and will use it later.

Congratulations Neha for a well deserved award! We wish you the best in your journey towards solving more problems.  

Inventor Spotlight: Angad Arora

With this blog we are launching our Inventor Spotlight series that highlight some of our student inventors who came up with a neat idea for an invention.

Our inventor this time is Angad Arora, who came up with a design for a suitcase that makes the job of packing easier, by providing feedback on the weight while it’s being packed. Angad’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. He designed the suitcase as part of our summer camp, held in collaboration with the Archimedes School.

We had a short Q&A with Angad after he won the award.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

My name is Angad and I am in 4th grade Quest program at Redmond Elementary. Science interests and fascinates me as it is everywhere around us. I would like to research more about the human DNA when I grow up.  

What is your invention and how does it work?

My invention, “Super Professional Suitcase” is a concept of the weighing of suitcases, made easier. The suitcase comes with a pressure sensor that warns you as you start reaching the airline weight limit. It does this while you are packing, so you don’t have to stop and weigh each time.

How did you come up with the idea?

The inspiration of this idea came from our yearly trips to India. For these trips we buy gifts for our extended family. The airlines allocate certain weight limits per suitcase. To adhere to this weight, limit the packing takes a while with many rounds of putting and taking out stuff. I noticed that my parents get exhausted after this task.

Did your prototype work? How was that experience?

For my prototype I used a shoebox to resemble a suitcase and installed a pressure sensor system at the bottom of the box. I had to carefully assemble the circuit. The procedure was to:

  1. Make a copper wire circuit system with a LED that is incomplete at a certain point
  2. Get a pressure sensor that has a piece of copper wire that attached to it
  3. Put tape on to the pressure sensor
  4. TEST- put weight in the shoebox- the pressure sensor will connect to the copper wire circuit causing the LED to light up

What did you learn from the summer camp?

I learned that if I wanted to make an amazing invention, I would have to think outside of the box and think  creatively – by being original with my ideas, and trying to solve a problem.

What is your most fun memory from the camp?

The teachers were very engaging and helped you think of the most imaginative ideas you could think of. We played many brain games that made you think outside the box.

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

I want to solve existing problems for people so that they can have an easier and convenient future.

What will you be using your prize money for?

I will use the prize money to buy an experiment kit for my next prototype!

Congratulations Angad for a well deserved award! We hope you continue to solve more problems and we look forward to more ideas from you.

Revitalizing Computer Science Education Through Creativity

If you were to pick the odd one out from these three things – television, computers, finger paint – which one would it be? If you are like most people, “finger paint” would stick out as the obvious answer for you.

However, that is exactly why Professor Mitchel Resnick, Professor at MIT and creator of Scratch, thinks we shortchange computer science education. As he explains, “But until we start to think of computers more like finger paint and less like television, computers will not live up to their full potential.” Just like finger paints and unlike televisions, computers can be used for designing and creating things.

Prof. Resnick believes that the focus of education in the 21st century should be to teach children to become creative thinkers. In a paper explaining his rationale he notes, “For today’s children, nothing is more important than learning to think creatively – learning to come up with innovative solutions to the unexpected situations that will continually arise in their lives. Unfortunately, most schools are out-of-step with today’s needs: they were not designed to help students develop as creative thinkers.

His group at MIT designed the highly popular Scratch programming environment with a “creativity first” approach. The goal of Scratch isn’t simply to teach programming constructs like loops and conditionals, but to encourage the spiraling creative process of imagine, create, play, share, reflect and imagine.

Incorporating creativity in computer science education has already shown several benefits. Researchers at a university in Ohio retooled their computer science classes to encourage more creative, hands-on learning. They found that in addition to an improvement in the quality of student work, the three year retention rate increased by 34%! This is especially important for women, who typically view computer science courses  “to be overly technical, with little room for individual creativity. ”

In our latest hands-on program, “Creative Android Apps”, offered in partnership with the Archimedes School, we taught mobile app development (using MIT App Inventor) while keeping creativity a central aspect of the program. The students used several creative thinking techniques to come up with their own project to design and build. While we taught them the fundamental building blocks of programming, they went through the creative spiral process to iterate and improve their apps.

Our goal was to go beyond teaching the basics of app development to inspiring students  towards computer science and STEM.

And we were truly impressed with apps that our students came up with – from managing and scheduling time,  to fundraising and even an app to help others learn machine learning! But what warmed us up most were when two of our middle-school girls said “I didn’t know programming could be so much fun!” and “I felt like I was Bill Gates.

We hope these students continue their journey towards learning and creating, and we look forward to our next Bill Gates!

 

Effective Feedback for a Growth Mindset

Suppose your child comes to you disappointed after receiving a B- on a math test that he worked really hard preparing for. What would you say to him?

If you already know about growth mindset, you know saying something along the lines of, “It’s OK, maybe you are just not a math person” isn’t the smartest thing. You should be focusing on the effort he put in instead of his inherent ability.

How about – “Great effort! I am sure you’ll do better next time”? Would that work better?

Not really.

In general, focusing on effort as opposed to ability increases intrinsic motivation over the long term. However, in certain situations, focusing on effort can actually make things worse. When the work results in a failure, focusing on effort solely can still leave the child feeling inept. Or if effort is overemphasized for relatively easy tasks, children may infer that as a sign of their low ability.

Growth mindset and intrinsic motivation go hand in hand. Children with a growth mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for intrinsic reasons (e.g. I enjoy doing this activity) whereas children with a fixed mindset are more likely to regulate their behavior for extrinsic reasons (e.g. I want my parents to think I am a good student).

Having a growth mindset is clearly superior to a fixed mindset, since growth mindset enhances intrinsic motivation which in the long term improves perseverance and resilience against failure. But how do you inculcate a growth mindset in your child? If you as a parent model a growth mindset would that rub off on your child?

Carol Dweck, Professor at Stanford, and the originator of the mindset theory of intelligence, found that there is no link between parents’ mind-sets and their children’s. Parents’ own mindsets aren’t generally not visible to their children because they don’t necessarily manifest in parental practices. For instance, parents can have a growth mind-set but still praise their child’s talent, leading their child to develop a fixed mindset. 

However, one factor that does influence children’s mindset is not their parents’  intelligence mindset but their parent’s failure mindset. As Carol Dweck explains, “parents can view failure as either enhancing or debilitating, that this belief manifests itself in their reactions to their children’s setbacks, and that it influences their children’s intelligence mind-sets.

So how can you handle a  failure situation more effectively?

When faced with a setback, a better approach is to frame the feedback in a more broader process-oriented feedback that includes thoughtful analysis of strategies and new approaches to explore. Think of the effort-oriented feedback as a subset of the larger process-oriented feedback. 

So, instead of simply saying “Good effort!”, use Prof Dweck’s recommendation and try this – “The point isn’t to get it all right away. The point is to grow your understanding step by step. What can you try next?” And follow this up with a discussion of what strategy did not work and what strategies might be worth trying the next time.

 

How Intrinsic Motivation Can Help Creativity

In 1971, Edward Deci did an experiment on college students to understand motivation and performance. These students were given puzzles to solve which Deci believed they would be intrinsically motivated to solve. Students in the control group did not receive any money to work on the puzzles, while students in the experimental group were paid only on the second day.  The experimenter gave a break in the middle of the experiment each day to see how long students played with the puzzles when left alone.

Deci found that students who were paid on the second day, spent longer on the puzzles during the break. However, on the third day when they were not paid, they spent significantly less time playing with the puzzles than the control group. Deci interpreted this as evidence that an external reward decreases the intrinsic motivation to engage in an activity.

Deci along with Ryan expanded on this work to propose the Self Determination Theory (SDT). The SDT outlines three universal psychological needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness – which govern individual motivation. Need for competence and autonomy form the basis of intrinsic motivation.

Monetary rewards have shown some benefit in performance if the task is more manual in nature or when people have identified with an activity’s value. For complex problems requiring creative problem solving skills, intrinsic motivation plays a bigger role.

Teresa Amabile, Professor at Harvard Business School and Creativity expert, has found plenty of evidence of what she calls the “Intrinsic Motivation Principle of Creativity”, namely that “people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction, and challenge of the work itself-and not by external pressures.

Given the strong connection between creativity and intrinsic motivation, here are three ways to maintain intrinsic motivation.

Praise, Don’t Reward

Praising instead of giving a monetary reward works better in improving intrinsic motivation, even though both are forms of external rewards. However, for praise to be effective it should focus on the effort as opposed to ability, should not convey low expectation and should not convey information about competence solely through social comparison.

Focus on Others

While intrinsic motivation drives creativity, it turns out that it drives the “originality” component of creativity and not the “useful” aspect. Prof. Adam Grant’s research has shown that focusing on solving others’ problems improves creativity in the “useful” aspect as well. As he explains, “perspective taking, as generated by prosocial motivation, strengthens the association between intrinsic motivation and creativity.”

Embrace failure

Any creative task by definition has a lot of uncertainty and success isn’t guaranteed. Creating a mindset where failure is appreciated for the knowledge it brings on what doesn’t work, can go a long way in building intrinsic motivation. In Prof. Amabile’s words, “… if people do not perceive any “failure value” for projects that ultimately do not achieve commercial success, they’ll become less and less likely to experiment, explore, and connect with their work on a personal level. Their intrinsic motivation will evaporate