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From Empathy to Innovation

Innovation is an interesting word being thrown around these days. For many, it may mean learning how to code in the newest languages, or learning to use the newest technologies. Is it creating the newest invention for human consumption? A lot of people tend to think of Steve Jobs when they think of innovators. Certainly, his contributions to our way of life should not be undersold. We can also look toward historical innovators like Nikola Tesla, who, while focused on product invention and patent acquisition, also looked into invention as a method to further humanity.
That is our challenge as educators. Not only are we tasked with making sure that students are mastering the concepts necessary for advancement, but we are also charged with ensuring that students show interest in caring for others; that they understand their place within a community outside of Graland as well. Projects built upon empathy and collaboration will help strengthen the skills necessary to succeed in this environment. Creative and critical thinking are skills that indeed can be taught, fostered, and grown given an environment in which to do so. 
Students are more engaged when they are involved with hands-on, project based learning (see story here). STEM is a now-familiar catch phrase referencing activities that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math. We integrate STEM activities into content that students are already comfortable in, because it allows them to have a baseline understanding of the concepts so that they may be creative and productive in whatever new activity they engage in. 

That is my task; that is my challenge: to introduce elements of design thinking and innovative ideas in collaboration with the already excellent education that exists in the classroom. Design thinking involves looking at problems through an empathetic viewpoint. It isn’t simply solving a problem, but rather, “How can I be helpful by solving their problem?” Students then iterate multiple solutions, gather feedback and continue to improve upon their proposed solution until they have achieved completion of the task at hand. This kind of thinking occurs all over campus: Over in the PE department, I recently worked with teachers on design thinking strategies so they can use those strategies with their students as they create new games to play with their buddies.

Having students think about the impact of their work — whether it is through self-reflection, ideation that helps the lives of others, or global awareness with a hope for change — really strengthens the impact of their work. It allows not only for a higher quality product, but it also includes an element of personal agency to their work; students see themselves and their efforts in their work. Finished products are true identity in action. 

What does this look like in the classroom? Maybe we strengthen an understanding of ratios through an activity, such as physically creating gears out of cardboard. Or perhaps students use the Gates Lab in the Corkins Center to create a tablet that displays their personal understanding of amendments in the United States constitution. Long term projects, like the eighth grade capstone project, look to employ elements of design thinking to further engage student investment and agency as they propose steps towards solving UN Sustainable Development Goals. Teachers are learning to use technologies such as the Makerbot 3D printer and Epilog Laser cutter in order to bring challenging projects and activities into the classroom.

Through discussion, inquiry, and challenge, Graland educators do a great job of presenting methods to innovate. As the years progress, I hope to not only boost these skills by presenting ideas and coaching teachers, but also to strengthen our community to look at innovation and invention through an empathetic lens, and ask, “How can we truly empathize with people in or around our neighborhood, locally and globally, in order to create and innovate in a way that impacts us all for the better?” 
Jorge Chavez joined Graland in 2009 with dual degrees in Spanish and computer applications and a master’s degree in mathematics instruction and curriculum. In 2018 he accepted a new role as an innovation specialist working closely with faculty. He is also an advisor and Gates co-director.

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.