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Gates Invention & Innovation Program

Gates Program Inspires School-Wide Learning

By Martin Twarogowski, Charles C. Gates Director of Innovative Learning
In 2011, General Electric conducted a study on the role of innovation in global business by interviewing over 1,000 executives across 12 countries. For those familiar with Graland’s Gates Invention and Innovation Program, their survey results should not be surprising... 
  • 95% of respondents believe that innovation will be the main factor in creating a more competitive economy 
  • 88% said that innovation is the best job creator in their country
  • More than 70% agreed that creativity, collaboration and empathy are among the most important factors for helping companies innovate. 
Middle schoolers have been learning and practicing innovation skills for more than 18 years in the Gates program. As we were dreaming of the possibilities the Corkins Center would bring us, it became quite clear that what we know and value about the Gates program needed to be shared and integrated throughout the entire school. Over the past year, we have continued to tinker with incorporating innovation skills into our everyday classroom curriculum. With the help and vision of our innovative learning specialist, Elizabeth Leddy, we have identified six skills that we believe are essential to innovation.
  1. Empathy: Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
  2. Creative Thinking: Go outside the box.
  3. Critical Thinking: Use existing knowledge and new information to solve problems. Ask good questions.
  4. Grit/Perseverance: Keep trying. Push through failures.
  5. Experimentation: Try, fix, try some more.
  6. Collaboration: Work together, share, listen, communicate. Understand your own strengths and weaknesses while embracing others. 
Tinker Time Develops Innovation Skills
Each of these skills is learned and practiced by students during their innovation sessions, called Tinker Time, where they participate in intentionally-designed challenges sequentially ordered by difficulty. For example, a low-level grit challenge might ask students to simply build their favorite fruit out of LEGOSTM. This may seem like a simple task, however perseverance is required to overcome the limitation that the bricks are odd-shaped, blocky and red, when all you really want to do is build a banana! 
On the other, more difficult end of the grit spectrum, students build a mini Rube Goldberg contraption with marble mazes and dominos. If you’ve ever tried the “line ‘em up and knock ‘em down” domino game, you know it is arguably the most frustrating activity you have ever done in your life. We put this activity at a high grit level and do not introduce it until students have practiced persevering through adversity with less frustrating challenges.
One of the most important components of these challenges is reflection. Students think about the day’s challenge and articulate which of the innovation skills they used and how. It’s pretty amazing listening to a pair of kindergartners debate the difference between creative and critical thinking and why it was an important part of the challenge.
Transferring Tinker Time to the Classroom
Once students and teachers have gone through the gauntlet of tinker challenges, they start applying these newly learned and practiced skills in their classrooms, taking advantage of their new innovation vocabulary. Recently teachers participating in the program have begun working with Mrs. Leddy to evaluate how they can add innovation and design thinking elements to existing lessons in all subject areas. 
As we rotate classes through Tinker Time in the lab, other students benefit from the new Makerspace Kits. Lower School students are also getting plenty of practice with innovation skills during science class. For several years, Graland’s science teachers have been engaging students with their engineering design projects all of which incorporate the six innovation skills.
During the past year as we have experimented with Tinker Time, I realized that these concepts are not anything new for Graland. In my nine years of witnessing my own children make their way through Graland, I have seen each of our six innovation skills practiced daily in one form or another. Tinker Time has helped us define and create universal vocabulary for concepts we have been implementing all along. It also has formalized essential skill development with intentionality.
Among Graland’s guiding principles is “Stimulate Innovation” and we are making it our goal to create innovators who have the necessary skills to be successful in the competitive economy of the future. 

Martin is a native of Fort Collins with three children at Graland. His favorite part of working at Graland is the students -- watching them tackle challenges with confidence and grit. Ask him about his favorite camping spots in Colorado.

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 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.