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Outside the Classroom

How to Encourage the Scientific Mindset and Innovation in Students

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Flashes of orange catch a mentor’s eye. A robotics student is using a large rubber mallet to drive a hex bearing into the wheel frame. A second student is holding a large black box with a wheel placed carefully on top of it, fingers tucked in to avoid being struck. A shocked parent leans over to a mentor and asks, “Are they supposed to do it that way?” A quick nod assures that all is well. Students at a local robotics center are assembling new swerve drive motors this summer. Each group works at its own pace, with an emphasis on quality and mastery, not speed. Leaders emerge, and confidence is growing. This is a new challenge for the robotics team, and students need to understand how the drive motor works and know all of its pieces inside and out so they are prepared to fix it when it breaks; and it will. Even if they don’t know it, working like this helps to encourage the scientific mindset and innovation in students.

Earlier in the year, the team decided to switch to a new drive system known as “swerve drive.” It’s more technical and gives student drivers the option to change direction immediately without a loss of traction or pushing power, and it adds stealth. Students have researched the swerve drive by gathering data from other teams using it, and asking those other teams about time involvement, materials, and the programming and coding used, along with the costs involved with using a swerve drive. The next step is to build a test chassis and start using it over the summer. This team operates with the notion that they can always do things better, faster, lighter. There’s always something new to be learned from breaking things and they are innovative, reaching out to specialists in a variety of manufacturing fields for advice and suggestions.

How does this innovation fit into the working world? All sectors of industry have noted the lack of creative solutions to modern problems. Businesses now search internationally for employees with unique backgrounds to add new ideas to old conversations. Over the course of the past century, we’ve lost our “tinkerers.” Classroom science has moved to mastery of content and a focus on the correct answer rather than exploring unique solutions and recognizing that some questions have a multitude of correct answers. On top of that, digital technology rarely leaves a child’s hands, and their focus is usually on a screen rather than a workbench of parts.

A book that aims to correct this, The Art of Scientific Innovation, offers a starting point for students and families looking to foster a creative mindset. The authors detail six steps of innovation: re-engineering, improvisation, adaptation, innovation, invention, and breakthrough.

  • Re-engineering encourages students to identify and evaluate a system that is not working and devise a new solution.
  • Improvisation brings the fun element of allowing makers to “wing it” and try an idea that seems more based on intuition, but is actually tied to prior knowledge.
  • Adaptation supports the use of an existing tool in a new and unique way.
  • Innovation is the application of critical thinking skills.
  • Invention provides the opportunity for children to have autonomy and responsibility for solutions.
  • Breakthrough allows students to resolve conflicts and present the new idea.

The writers also suggest children need time for introspection to allow creative solutions to develop. Children can be encouraged to have a passion for truth based on observations and data, not perfection. Gradually, their interest in a topic will become deep-seated, and they may start to pursue it during their free time. Children can specialize, challenge, and compare new information as it comes in, revising the body of information that is “known.” This leads to ambition, persistence, and over time, a commitment to the body of knowledge. The authors also encourage inventions that serve public need and make positive impacts in the community. The reward feedback loop of helping others is known to stave off depression and help people feel connected to their classmates, neighbors, colleagues, and peers.

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How to Encourage the Scientific Mindset and Innovation in Students

Parents can shift the focus at home to creative problem solving, and allow for a wide range of solutions, instead of just one. Adults can step back and discourage the idea of “my solution,” avoid groupthink, and reduce peer pressure. Give children a chance to test their ideas even if they appear to be illogical or ineffective. There’s something to be learned every time an idea is wrong. Make sure to emphasize that the child is not wrong by saying something like, “This idea didn’t work. What should we try next?” As a parent or mentor, your role is to monitor progress and listen.

Here are some things parents and educators can start doing right now to encourage innovation:

You’ll be amazed at the new ideas and solutions children come up with once given the freedom to create and think. The opportunity to become makers and producers ensures a lifelong quest for learning.

About the Author

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Teresa Tucker

A California native, who now calls Michigan home, Teresa graduated from MSU with a B.S. in Natural Resources and Environmental Education and Secondary Teaching minors in Earth Science and Physical Science, as well as an M.S. focusing on the use of real-time data to motivate students. With 20 years of experience in the classroom and 6 years of online teaching experience, she continues to enjoy working with students, helping them think critically about scientific information.