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!