How to Raise an Innovator

The Bay Area has long been an epicenter of innovation, from the personal computer to the iPhone and from social media to the sharing economy. And it’s widely accepted that continued innovation will be key to the future, whether solving challenges ranging from climate change to cancer or creating jobs and a strong economy. It’s estimated that 65 percent of the jobs for the next generation haven’t even been invented yet.
“The economy that our children are growing up to live in is one in which change will be constant and the skills that will be valued are entrepreneurship, problem-solving and innovation,” says Erica Fortescue, associate director of innovative learning at the Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito. But are we preparing our children to be the next generation of innovators?
Studies show creativity is in decline among U.S. children, with culprits including an emphasis on high-stakes testing and rote learning, over-scheduling in organized activities and increasing amounts of time parked in front of a screen.
“Kids who come to us for the first time today are more afraid of making mistakes than any kids we’ve worked with before, want to be told what to do or what the right answer is and are quick to give up when something doesn’t work the first time,” says Glen Tripp, founder of Oakland-based Galileo, which runs summer camps for kids in pre-K through eighth grade that emphasize innovation. “The good news,” says Tripp, “is that there are some trends that are counteracting it.”
Especially in the Bay Area, opportunities for children to innovate and exercise their creativity are abundant and growing, from schools that emphasize project-based learning to programs and venues that allow kids to make, experiment and problem solve. “Creativity is a learned skill,” says Fortescue. “You’re not just born creative or not creative. There are all different kinds of skills (children) can work on.”
Tripp says one of the most important things parents can do is to allocate their children’s time wisely, and that starts with the place where they spend the bulk of their days – school.
The Importance of Hands-on
With the transition to Common Core and an increased focus on “21st Century skills” including critical thinking, collaboration and creativity, a growing number of schools are emphasizing project-based learning, opening “maker studios” and more.
The Athenian School, a private middle and high school in Danville, has a Maker Studio, Innovation Studio and machine shop. Students studying engineering, computer-aided design and fabrication, and “the art of science and making” use a 3-D printer, laser engraver and more advanced tools. The spaces are also used by clubs working on electric vehicles and robotics, as well as an after-school club in which some 50 students each year participate in building an actual working airplane over the course of several years. “Kids today don’t have the dad-in-the-garage experience many of us had,” says Lori Harsch, a mechanical engineer who runs the maker spaces. “This is a way to put skills and tools in their lives and teach them to be confident. … It’s really about hands-on learning and taking it out of the classroom.”
Such innovations aren’t limited to private schools. Lighthouse Community Charter School in Oakland has a Creativity Lab and incorporates making into its curriculum, from kindergarteners doing woodworking to third-graders making circuits. The East Bay Innovation Academy, an Oakland junior high that is expanding into a high school, and Design Tech High School in Burlingame are two more charter schools that put innovation front and center.
Outside the Box Outside of School
But don’t despair if your child’s school still resembles the one you attended. The Bay Area is full of extra-curricular opportunities for innovation and fun.
“Choose at least one activity per year that involves collaboration, creativity and problem-solving,” says Tripp, the Galileo camps founder. “That might be a robotics team or it might be staging a play. … anything that allows kids to create and go through an iterative process where you reflect and can change it and improve it.” Galileo camps introduce an “innovator’s mindset” stressing vision, courage, collaboration, determination and reflection. Younger campers explore themes through art, science and outdoor play, while older ones might build a go-kart or video game. More than 44,000 children enrolled in camps last summer, Galileo’s 14th year. “We’re trying to tell kids it’s your place to have an idea in the world and make that a reality,” says Tripp.
Allison Aldrich’s son, Jackson, 14, has been attending Galileo summer camps for years, undertaking projects ranging from 3D printing to building a model suspension bridge from cardboard and string to making a mod in Minecraft. “He loves it,” says the Los Altos mom. “I love the love of learning. … Of course you are going to retain things more if you are involved and engaged.”
Dale Dougherty, founder and executive chairman of San Francisco-based Maker Media, has seen that same spark in kids who attend the Maker Faire, the festival of “invention, creativity and resourcefulness” and celebration of maker culture that he started 11 years ago. It takes place every May in San Mateo.
“I had no idea how many kids would show up at Maker Faire and how much they would enjoy it,” says Dougherty, who also publishes Make: magazine. “Once you spark someone’s imagination, they start looking at the world a different way. … If you look at things we’re trying to overcome with kids – this sense of passivity and ‘this is the way the world is and I can’t do anything about it’ – the maker mindset creates agency. ‘This is stuff I can do.’” “It helps you drive your own education, your own learning, your own desire of what you want to get out of life,” Dougherty says.
The Maker Faire has since grown to 150 festivals around the world including many Mini Maker Faires at schools. Maker Media also runs free online Maker Camps that provide projects and ideas for children and families that want to explore hands-on learning.
Four years ago, Dougherty also founded the Maker Education Initiative, an Oakland nonprofit that trains educators on how to bring maker projects into schools. One of its resources is a free, downloadable toolkit on how to establish a maker space.
Dougherty estimates there are now thousands of maker spaces nationwide – and the number is growing – ranging from multimillion-dollar college labs to an inner-city school with few resources that created its program around donated wooden pallets. “I’m not against 3D printers, but that’s not accessible to everybody. Start an open exploration of materials and things that are around you, like cardboard,” he says. “Clear off the kitchen table and put out straws and engage in, ‘What would you make out of this?’”
Making Maker Projects Available
To make high-end tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters accessible to everyone, the Bay Area Discovery Museum this spring will open a Fab Lab, billed as the nation’s first for children as young as 3. In addition to tools for digital fabrication, the lab will have hands-on projects that explore circuitry, programming and coding.
Already, young children are trying their hands at some of these skills through Curiosity Hacked, an Oakland-based organization founded in 2012 as a kid-accessible hacker space. Families can participate in drop-in programs or kids can join “guilds” to undertake longer-term projects, such as building a rudimentary computer from a circuit board and Arduino controller. There are now more than 50 volunteer-run guilds in the Bay Area and beyond.
“Many schools have had to take out some of the more hands-on classes and activities, whether it’s because of budget or liability. That’s a shame,” says Curiosity Hacked co-founder Chris Cook, a father of three. “We’ve got 5-year-olds learning how to solder.” “We teach (kids) how to learn – what resources they have available – and try to give them the skills to be more self-directed in what they want to do,” says Cook. “This is where innovation comes in for the kids. We’re trying to help them realize they are in control of their education.”
While technology, engineering and science play a strong role in the thrust to expose kids to innovation, they are certainly not the only avenues.
Destination Imagination, a nonprofit organization that creates team challenges that flex kids’ creativity, collaboration and problem-solving muscles, incorporates fine arts and service learning as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills.
Paizley Spencer, an Alameda teacher librarian and parent, is in her third year coaching Destination Imagination at Earhart Elementary, which has had teams reach the Global Finals in Tennessee the past two years. One team took second place in a competition that brought teams together from throughout the United States and 76 other counties. One of the highlights of the four-day competition in May is a Duct Tape Ball in which participants all create their costumes from a material renown for its ubiquitous uses.
Spencer’s team last year tackled a service learning project that resulted in raising $3,000 for a local animal shelter by putting on a movie day fundraiser, and then creating a video about the need that they could present in competition. This year’s team is building a zip line that can carry a teammate across a stage. In addition to presenting the long-term team projects, the competitions also include “instant challenges” that teach participants how to work together and think on their feet.
“It’s a curriculum of getting kids to think on their own and be innovative on their own, and try not to involve their parents,” Spencer says. “It’s all about asking them questions and getting them to think instead of looking at you (the parent) and saying: ‘What do you think?’” “It develops skills people use every day in a work environment – problem solving, figuring out how to work with people you don’t always agree with, what to do when people don’t always listen to you,” she adds. “It’s fascinating to watch … the imagination that comes out of it and the camaraderie and skill building,” she adds.
Odyssey of the Mind is a similar program active in many Bay Area schools.
Of course, filling every moment of your child’s time with activities that aim to encourage innovation can backfire. Downtime and even boredom are key in getting children to innovate on their own, Tripp says. “Kids make fewer decisions on a daily basis about what to do and how to use their time. They have less unstructured time in which they can be the author of what is happening,” he says.
Tripp advises that every elementary-age child have several two- to three-hour chunks of time per week “with no screen time and where parents aren’t going to intervene and solve the problem of them being bored.” He also says parents can encourage innovation by modeling it. “Whenever possible, set the example of someone who is willing to make mistakes, try something new or imagine a different possibility, and then pursue that,” he says.
For Tripp, raising the next generation of innovators is important not just on the “macro” level – for our future society – but on the smaller, but no less important, level of our children’s personal happiness as they grow into adulthood. “When people act like innovators, they have the ability to design a life that will give them greater meaning and fulfillment,” he says. “Being an innovator starts with the belief that the world can change, and you have the ability to change it.”
Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.
Center for Childhood Creativity at the Bay Area Discovery Museum: Online Family Activity Guides offer suggestions for family play that encourages children’s creativity.
Children’s Creativity Museum: This hands-on museum’s Innovation Lab challenges children to invent something using only the materials on hand in its Mystery Box challenge. Other activities include a tech lab where children can program robots, and music and animation studios. 221 Fourth St., San Francisco. 415-820-3320.
Curiosity Hacked: A national nonprofit, founded in 2012 in Oakland, that focuses on STEAM education, skill building and community engagement. Hosts classes, a drop-in Open Labs for ages 8-14, a weekly Sparks program for ages 4-8 and a membership-only Guild for ages 8 and up. The Oakland Open Lab is held Sundays from 2-5 p.m. at 6036 Telegraph Ave.
Destination Imagination: A non-profit organization dedicated to fostering students’ curiosity, courage and creativity through open-ended STEM, fine arts and service learning challenges, with the goal of developing the next generation of innovators and leaders. In its Challenge program, teams work on one of seven challenges and compete in local tournaments, with winners advancing as far as global finals. This San Francisco-based company offers a free website and app that allows kids to learn new skills, create and share their results. Four-week-long virtual camps – with themes from Space to Minecraft to LEGO – offer daily challenges for a subscription fee.
Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio: This drop-in lab at the Exploratorium is a “workshop for playful imagination, investigation and collaboration” where visitors can explore scientific phenomena and make something. The website includes many at-home projects.
FIRST LEGO League: Teams of up to 10 students, ages 9-14, compete by building and programming an autonomous LEGO Mindstorm robot in response to a challenge based on a real-world scientific topics. There are more than 25,000 teams in 80 countries.
Galileo Camps: Summer camps aim to encourage innovation through hands-on exploration of science, art and outdoor activities around a theme. Galileo Summer Quest, for entering fifth- through eighth-graders, tackles bigger projects ranging from building go-karts to creating video games. The website’s Innovation Archives includes reading and resources on the components of what Galileo calls the “innovator’s mindset.”
Maker Education Initiative: This Oakland-based non-profit aims to create opportunities for young people to develop confidence, creativity and an interest in science, technology, engineering, math, art and learning as a whole through making. Trains maker educators, has a network of Young Makers clubs, a “playbook” for creating a maker space and a large resource library for educators and others with projects and more.
Maker Faire and Maker Camp: A family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness, showcasing the maker movement. The original Maker Faire takes places each May in San Mateo, with Mini Maker Faires and other offshoots occurring worldwide. Maker Camp, another project of Maker Media, is a free online community with maker projects for kids.
Odyssey of the Mind: Similar to Destination Imagination, Odyssey of the Mind offers competitions in which teams of students, from kindergarten through college, use creativity to solve problems ranging from building mechanical devices to presenting their interpretation of literary classics.
The Tech Museum and The Tech Challenge: A signature program of the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, The Tech Challenge is an annual design challenge for teams of students in grades 4-12 that introduces the engineering design process with a hands-on project geared to solving a real-world problem. The museum itself has many galleries for hands-on exploration – including one in which visitors can build a robot – and holds regular weekend workshops. The Silicon Valley Innovation Gallery showcases the region’s innovation and creativity with hands-on exhibits. 201 S. Market St., San Jose. 408-294-8324.
How To Talk to Your Child to Encourage Innovation
1. Avoid the automatic response.
• That’s beautiful!
• You’re so smart/creative/talented!
2. Honor the work: Sit down with your child and focus together.
• Wow – I’m really interested in hearing all about this!
3. Engage in reflective conversation.
• Tell me all about it.
• What was your vision? Is it fulfilled (yet)?
• What is and isn’t working in your design?
• What part did you enjoy the most?
• What was the most challenging part?
4. Offer praise on how the work was done.
• Wow – you tried something very new to you. That was courageous!
• I like how you turned your idea into reality!
• I noticed you didn’t give up when it didn’t work at first. Way to be determined.
• The two of you combined your ideas in an interesting way. Nice collaboration!


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