In one of the original program manuals, the following is emphasized: “Real problems are to be identified and solved through a creative process. Inventions should have a practical function, make life easier, safer, or solve an everyday problem. Students should not be afraid to take risks and develop an appreciation for hard work.”
If all that sounds familiar, it should. These core concepts are timeless and continue to drive this program and ensure its ongoing success. While Mr. Gates’ core philosophy for the Gates program provides a solid foundation, there certainly have been changes over the past 20 years. Notably, the growth in participation numbers is impressive:
1999 - 10 inventors
2005 - 35 inventors
2011 - 71 inventors
2015 - 116 inventors
2020 - 138 inventors
One visible example of the program’s growth hangs in the staircase leading down to the Gates lab. Take a close look at the posters on the walls. You will notice the faces of the participants get smaller and smaller as the camera moves farther away each year to capture the growing number of inventors.
And recently we welcomed a large improvement in the amount of workshop space. For the inaugural Gates program, inventors utilized 400 square feet; today’s inventors have 3,500 in the Corkins Center. Back in the day, there were only two faculty serving as Gates coaches. In 2020 there are 12.
Another subtle way the Gates program has evolved is the introduction of the design thinking process. While continuing to lean on the original Gates core philosophy, coaches have implemented an effective protocol that helps students gain new skills in creative problem solving: design thinking. This powerful framework helps inventors derive a deep understanding of their users as well as their solutions.
More evidence of the Gates program evolution is found in the types of solutions being created by our inventors, some of which are not tangible products. Students are designing solutions like websites, smartphone apps, services or other unique ideas that help people. Our student inventors are leading the way with a keen understanding of the needs and resources of the 21st century.
The tools students are using have adapted as well. Aside from quadrupling the number of shop staples like hammers, saws, drills, duct tape and, well, staples, the Gates lab is now equipped with some impressive state-of-the-art machines. Large format printers, 3-D printers, “finger safe” table saws and a massive laser cutter/engraver are in constant use, truly augmenting the way students create.
An American businessman and former cabinet member to President Jimmy Carter, Bert Lance, coined the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In many ways that could be the mantra of the Gates philosophy, an approach that has remained relevant for 20 years and undoubtedly will for 20 more. Also fitting, “If it ain’t broke, make it bigger and better.”