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

Superheros to the Rescue

How do creative ideas come about? What cognitive processes underlie creativity? These questions have been a source of fascination and research among psychologists for a long time. One thinking pattern that comes up most often as an explanation is associative thinking.  

The first influential theory that tied associative thinking to creativity was put forth by Mednick. He defined the creative thinking process as the “forming of associative elements into new combinations which either meet specified requirements or are in some way useful.” He proposed that how associations are organized in the brain determines how creative people are. Less creative people show steep associative hierarchies (only a few associations will show high associative response strength) while highly creative people have flat associative hierarchies.

While some of Mednick’s predictions didn’t turn out to be true, he was right about the associative nature of creativity. Recent research is starting to reveal more about associative thinking and how it ties to both creativity and intelligence.

Benedek and colleagues investigated associative processes and how they impact creativity and intelligence. The four kinds of associative processes they studied were:

  • Associative Fluency – The ability to generate as many associations as possible to a given trigger. For example, apple:  “red”, “juicy”, “round”.
  • Associative Flexibility – The ability to build a long and diversified associative chain where each item is associated only to the preceding one. For example, apple: “red”, “blood”, “bandaid”.
  • Dissociative Ability – The ability to generate a list of unrelated concepts. For example, apple: “pencil”, “shirt”, “screwdriver”.
  • Associative Combination – The ability to find an associations related to completely unrelated stimuli. For example apple – beanbag: “round”, “squishy”.

Their analysis showed that “associative combination and dissociative ability are significant predictors of creativity, whereas both have no significant relationship to intelligence. In contrast, intelligence is predicted by associative flexibility, which in turn has no significant relationship to creativity.

Our latest brainteaser category, “Superheros to the Rescue”, suggested by a MindAntix user, builds on the associative combination thinking. In this kind of brainteaser, there are two completely unrelated concepts – a crisis (e.g. the family kitten is stuck on a tree) and a Superhero with a rather strange superpower (e.g. the “Whipped Cream Man” who can shoot foamy, gooey whipped cream) who needs to save the day. The key to solving the brainteaser is to construct a story that uses the superpower in a meaningful way to solve the problem.

We love this idea from our user because it beautifully captures the essence of the combinatorial form of associative thinking in a fun way. Well done! In fact, constructing a brainteaser in this category builds both the dissociative ability (the crisis and the super power are completely unrelated) and the associative combination (the solution has to tie the two concepts in a meaningful way).

So it’s your turn now. Can you think of a way the Whipped Cream Man could help save the kitten? Have fun using your imagination and creativity to solve this!

A Summer Full of Inventions

After an exciting and busy spell, we recently concluded our summer programs that introduced children to creativity and inventing.

This year, we expanded on our summer camp from last year. We ran our invention themed camps for two age groups – a younger group (1st – 4th grade) and an older group (5th – 8th). The younger group had weekly invention themes (like inventions to simplify chores, making functional clothes etc). For the older group, we did a 2-week camp in collaboration with the Archimedes School (who taught 3D printing). The students made pressure sensors from individual components, 3D printed a casing for their sensors and then used creative thinking techniques to come up with new inventions that would use pressure sensors in a meaningful way.

Our goal was for children to experience the entire creative flow from ideation to prototyping, and learn creativity skills that would last them for longer. Through these creativity techniques, we wanted children to come up with many different ideas to solve a problem. In fact, with the older group, we even tallied how many ideas they got with and without using creativity techniques. Everyone in that group was able to come up with 2x-3x more ideas by using one of the creative thinking approaches! Here are the things we focused on in our camps:

  • Understanding Creativity: We started each camp with discussing what creativity means – that it involves coming up with ideas that are both original and useful.  Creativity is often confused with art, and it was helpful to clarify that in the beginning with a discussion of what makes something creative.
  • Creativity Techniques: For both groups, we focused on two core creative thinking techniques to coming up with original ideas – “Put to Another Use” and “Associative Thinking“. Being able to adapt an object for a different use and finding ways to combine a random object or concept, are fundamental processes in thinking creatively and seem to underlie other creativity techniques. The older group also did other techniques like reversing assumptions, and processes like MindMapping to help them brainstorm more effectively.
  • Evaluating Creativity: While it’s important to understand what creativity is, we thought it would be even better if the students knew how they can measure creativity. So, everyone had to evaluate their own as well as others’ ideas on “originality” and “usefulness”. The older group also rated ideas on “impact” and “practicality”. This exercise really helped them in picking the most creative ones to pursue in a systematic way.
  • Telling a Story: It’s not enough to come up with a good idea – selling an idea is just as important. So we introduced storytelling and storyboarding concepts to help them tell a compelling story about their invention. The older group pitched their idea to the rest of the group and got useful feedback on their invention and pitch in return.  

We were truly heartened to see even the younger children apply these concepts and come up with creative ideas. And we ended up with some very neat inventions in the process!

The younger group came up with ideas like a sweater that converts into a hammock using drawstrings on the collar and bottom (notice the “Put to another use” skill being used here?), a pot with removable handles that also serve as spatulas, a couch with easy access storage bins and many more!

The older group used pressure sensor in many different ways and after searching through the patent database picked ideas that they believed were sufficiently unique and useful. We had a safe stovetop that will switch off when there is no pan on it, a laundry hamper that reminds you to do your laundry regularly, a pencil grip that detects when you are under stress and pressing too hard and several more. And what truly warmed our hearts was when one of the students commented during the demo day, “If all of these were not just prototypes, the world would be so much better!

We had a great time watching  our 40+ campers learn to play with ideas and hope they are inspired to continue their inventive journey beyond our summer camp.

If Pigs Could Fly…

In the late 80s, researchers studying logical learning in children gave a group of 4 year olds the premise that ‘all pigs can fly’ and that ‘John is a pig’. Most of the kids had trouble reaching the conclusion that ‘John can fly’, until the researchers changed the instructions a little.

When the researchers first told the kids ‘let’s pretend that [all pigs can fly]…’, their performance on this task improved significantly. Somehow, transferring the rule to a pretend world helped the children in reasoning abstractly about that world.

The exact mechanism of why pretending helps with reasoning is not fully clear, but research in the last couple of decades has shown that pretend scenarios play an important role in cognitive development.

Psychologists, Weisberg and Gopnik, have proposed that unrealistic pretend scenarios don’t just help with counterfactual reasoning – they are also important for causal learning which can in some cases be harder to do with real-world scenarios. As they explain about Einstein’s theories, “Einstein’s thought experiments are a good scientific example of how unrealistic counterfactuals can help to distinguish potential causal structures. Both relativistic and classical theories of physics make similar predictions in commonly observed cases. Considering very unlikely possibilities, such as a world where the speed of light is different, can help discriminate between these theories.

Unrealistic pretend scenarios are also an integral part of creative thinking and utilize, among other things, associative thinking. For instance, comprehending the statement, ‘If dogs had gills…’, requirescreation of an unusual conceptual combination (‘dogs’ and ‘gills’) with potential consequences that go beyond what is literally stated.

Torrance, also known as the father of creativity, included two tasks (‘Just Suppose’ and ‘Consequences Task’) around improbable situations in his Torrance Test of Creative Thinking.

Our newest category of brainteasers at MindAntix, ‘What Would Happen If…’, present unrealistic scenarios and ask users to come up with as many reasonable consequences as possible. Our goal is to build the cognitive processes underlying logical and creative thinking like disengaging with reality, making inferences and associative thinking.

So, the next time you are bored try making up a new world where the usual rules don’t apply. How would things be different in that world? What would happen as a consequence of those strange new rules? And maybe while thinking about that you might even discover a new insight about our own world!