All children are natural inventors, but empathy is a learned trait. This has become a core belief of the Gates Invention and Innovation Program at Graland.
For the past 18 years the Gates program has sparked the kind of learning that ignites young minds by providing students with an authentic opportunity to solve real world problems with an original working invention of their own design. Inventors are encouraged to tinker, create, innovate and to explore the imaginative depths of their own ideas. Such an approach develops critical thinking, creative problem solving, collaboration, risk taking and perseverance (grit). These qualities are currently considered among the most essential indicators of future success. However, we as Gates coaches, know that this process is at its best when the inventor works, fails, struggles and ultimately perseveres in a genuine effort to serve others.
Like our students, Gates coaches are innovators too, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve our program to ensure that our student inventors get the most from their experience. During a reflection meeting a few years ago, coaches reviewed the elements of design thinking and saw that we had an opportunity to grow in the area of empathy.
Empathy is a central element of the program, and is in fact the genesis of design thinking. To better understand a situation and to see where improvements can be made, one has to “see” the problem from multiple perspectives, and ask questions to clarify and guide the decisions that lead to new solutions. Empathy clarifies, illuminates and guides the problem that an inventor is trying to solve. It is also key to monitoring the outcome of their project, allowing the inventor to check for success or shortcomings based on the thoughts, feelings and reactions of those for whom the product is intended.
The first step toward increasing empathy is drawing students’ attention to the troubles of others. We begin each Gates season with activities that encourage inventors to look at different situations and challenges from multiple perspectives, and then to interview people. Inventors are sent out into the world to talk with people about various “experiences,” and to then break down the feelings and thoughts that different people have about the same experience. While this can be a lofty conversation, it can also be as simple as talking about breakfast, and discovering that not everyone experiences their morning meal in the same way. Such activities help students to resist “single-solution thinking” and the tunnel vision that can plague those focused on a sole remedy to their own particular problem. Students in Grades 7/8 are emboldened in this process through work with the Empathy Field Guide from the Institute of Design at Stanford. They learn to build rapport, understand the user and to dig for stories and feelings. These are used in turn to inform important decisions in the ideation and design process.
Gates coaches know that when focused on others, inventors tend to see more divergent opportunities, persist through obstacles, and have a strong desire to persevere, feeling that they owe it to someone else to do their best to make things better. This determination inspires students in making sure their projects are practical, thoroughly functional and polished, and gives them a real audience to confirm that things work, and that they have addressed the needs of their constituents.
Examples abound. This year fifth grader Sloane Thompson is developing a self-medication system to increase the independence of those who suffer from multiple sclerosis. Max and Amelia Birner (6) are developing a method to make outdoor staircases safer. And eighth grader Grace Dale is working on a biodegradable fish hook, in order to minimize dangerous trash from fishing, while her classmate, Millie Brophy (8), is developing an outdoor water shower purification system that will filter out a common parasitic worm found in the bathing water of many third world countries.
These and other examples promote in young people the belief and understanding that their own unique ideas not only have merit and value, but are indeed the very substance of hope in helping to change the lives of others.
A Graland Master Teacher, Andy co-leads and coaches in the Gates program and teaches Grade 5 science. He has a master’s degree in educational leadership and enjoys martial arts (black belt), beekeeping and cycling.