Young Inventors in the Classroom
by Gina Manola, Owner, CALICO
Ann Quackenbush is a founding member and upper elementary teacher at Next Generation Primary and Middle School, a private school in Champaign, Illinois. Prior to that she worked in Champaign public schools for several years as a fourth and fifth grade teacher.
Last fall, Ann attended a presentation that I gave on the Young Inventor Challenge (YIC) at the Urbana Free Public Library. The Young Inventor Challenge program offers kids ages 6-18 the opportunity to invent and present their original toy or game concept at the Chicago Toy & Game Fair held annually at Navy Pier in Chicago, Illinois.
After my presentation, Ann invited me to present the program to Next Generation School. The Young Inventor Challenge program includes step by step instructions on brainstroming activities, prototyping and play-testing ideas and is available as a free downloadable pdf. Teachers and parents are welcome to use the program with no expectation of having to present at the Fair.
Ann immediately saw how the program could benefit her students. She expressed that beyond the basics, students need opportunities to invent, collaborate and think in new ways. She saw the Young Inventor Challenge as an appealing way to engage kids in the creative inventing process.
After a successful pilot run of the program at NGS, I was eager to get her perspective as an educator and share her insights with others who might be considering including the Young Inventor Challenge in their school curriculum.
As an educator, what attracted you to the YIC?
I know kids love to play games, and I noticed that they often make up their own rules and modifications as they play. I felt that kids who didn’t like games, perhaps because they didn’t like the structure or the rules of particular games, might be inspired create their own. Finally, I had previously been involved with other after-school programs meant to challenge students as they worked on long-term projects, but I particularly liked the way that the YIC enabled the students to take ownership of every aspect of the process, from game design to creation to presentation.
What did you think the YIC program offered your students?
I think the YIC offered students the opportunity to bring their ideas to life. The ideas that students came up with were so varied, and it was wonderful to see them develop their projects. I think it was a very empowering experience.
Was it easy to integrate into the school? What kind of support did you offer students/parents?
Since this was our first year trying out the YIC, we decided to start small. We invited a local game designer, Gina Manola, to present to our student body. Then we set up “support group” meetings every other Saturday, so that any families of students who wished to participate could benefit from working with others going through the same process. We loosely structured the meetings, with each devoted to a step in the process (brainstorming, creating the prototype, testing, and creating the display) that would have them ready in time for the Toy and Game Fair. We held our meetings at school, so that students would have access to computers and materials needed for making their games/displays. We also introduced families to the Community Fabrication Lab, which some students used to create game materials.
How did your students (or school) respond to the YIC program?
Many students were very enthusiastic about creating their own game or toy, although not everyone who expressed interest completed the process. We had about 12 who attended one or all of the support meetings and 3 who presented their designs at the Toy and Game Fair. Having a game designer come and talk to the students exposed them to what that experience may be like —and fostered a sense of possibility in becoming game designers themselves. We would like to integrate the experience of the YIC into our science curriculum so that more students can benefit from the process.
Do you have any advice for other schools or teachers that are considering offering it to their students?
I would suggest that students work on their game with a friend. Our participating students worked individually, and most feedback was given by parents (myself included, as my 9 year-old daughter participated), and sometimes I felt the tension of wanting to change my child’s idea to make it something that I felt would work better. I think having a partner to bounce ideas off of would give students the opportunity to work out some of these ideas with each other without so much adult intervention being required. Basically, I think it’s a lot for a young child working alone to design and create a game, so they need help from someone. I think it would be preferable to have a peer helping them rather than an adult who may take too much control over the process. In addition, the day that they present the game can be pretty exhausting, and it would be great to have a friend to offer support in sharing their product with the public.
Do you have any feedback as to how the YIC program can be improved?
I was impressed with the number of people who visited the YIC area and the way they listened so patiently and offered great feedback to the participants. It was quite a long day for students, so perhaps breaking up the day into presentation time for the younger and older participants would allow them some time to enjoy the other attractions at the Fair.