Nurturing your child's innovation

By Danielle Leonard on November 12, 2012
When Jo-Anne Peckham distributed owl pellets among her students to dissect, she hoped that they would, at best, extract a few bones from the regurgitated remains of the owl’s meal, and at worst, not devolve into a pellet flinging contest. She needn’t have worried. With furrowed brows, the kids were soon teasing out small skeletal pieces from the egg-sized clumps then comparing each find against a chart to classify bones by their scientific terms. What made this situation so unique was that it was taking place in a class full of kindergartners.

“These children were using advanced terminology, like scapula and mandible, and recreating entire skeletons of animals with one another’s bones,” says Jo-Anne. While most five-year-olds are practising how to use scissors and glue, she has spent the last couple of years encouraging the school’s youngest students to develop investigative techniques using real life problems.

“I would rather let kids discover their answers on their own,” she says. “To experience their own Aha! moments.”

It is this process of coming up with questions and exploring solutions that provides the foundation for innovative thinking – a buzz phrase that generates images of high tech superstars like Apple creator, Steve Jobs, and Blackberry creator, Jim Balsillie. Technology and science are playing an increasingly ubiquitous role in daily life, from robot vacuums to cutting edge medical treatments. Governments around the globe are touting the importance of building a culture of innovation to help solve the world’s most pressing problems.

We also need to compete in an era where the potential to develop new ideas seems as limitless as cyberspace itself. For Canada’s first generation of the 21st century, the road to becoming the technological leaders of tomorrow starts long before they earn their university degrees.

Many parents remember science class as a mandatory hour of the day where they fought to keep their eyes open during lectures on the periodic table. Brainiac straight-A kids thrived (and stayed awake), while everyone else muddled through until the day arrived when they’d never again have to look at a chemical formula. Yet for their own children, whose lives are interwoven with technology, that mentality to “just get by” in the classroom lab is a risky proposition.

The definition of innovation is, very simply, the ability to provide a new idea and make it useful. Innovation has propelled society forward – sometimes in leaps – for centuries, such as the progression from telegraph to telephone to smartphone. What will come next? Undoubtedly, the children who cultivate an appreciation of science and a desire to innovate will have that answer, and many more.

But how does a parent, who is more comfortable explaining a slapshot than the theory of relativity, teach a child to be innovative? The surprising answer, and one that is slowly taking shape in schools across Canada, is to let the child take the lead in exploring.

Feed a child’s natural curiosity

Every child comes naturally equipped with an insatiable curiosity that spills out in a steady stream of questions. Why don’t dogs have eyebrows? How do lightbulbs turn off? What makes pop fizz? Yet as they grow older, the questions invariably decrease, and may eventually stop altogether.

It doesn’t have to be that way, says Reni Barlow, executive director of Youth Science Canada, an organization that encourages scientific inquiry in the classroom and science fairs across the country. “Parents do not need a background in science to help kids become interested in science. They just need to be supportive of the process of inquiry. When kids ask questions, parents can engage them by asking ‘how do you suppose you could find the answer?’” Opportunities to discuss the wonders of science pop up during walks to school, while preparing meals, and even cleaning the house (it never hurts to encourage a child do chores). Too often, parents hastily respond to a child’s question with little thought or wave it away for another time (especially if they don’t have the answer). Not surprisingly, this may eventually extinguish the spark of curiosity that is so essential to nurturing inventive thought.

A fair for young scientists

Schools play a pivotal role in helping build upon a child’s innovation foundation. Science class is an ideal springboard since the scientific inquiry technique is also rooted in the process of asking questions. Dr. Johanne Patry understands the challenges of engaging young minds in science. A recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence and Europe’s Science on Stage Award, she is Chair of Science on Stage Canada and a trailblazer in transforming science classrooms from drill-and-kill style teaching to hands-on learning.

“Children need to learn beyond the textbook,” says Dr. Patry. “Science is action and elementary students should be learning about exploring.” She has heard this method described as “teaching with your hands in your pocket” as it requires teachers to surrender some of their control so kids can lead their own scientific discoveries. She concedes that many teachers resist this style for fear of the chaos that may erupt, or explode, when a couple dozen primary students are allowed to perform their own experiments.

Yet that’s exactly the philosophy behind the long-running tradition of science fairs that crop up across the country every spring. They introduce thousands of young scientists to the thrill of the Eureka! moment. Unlike classroom science, where each lesson tends to focus on a single skill or technique, a science fair empowers a student to feel what it’s like to be an actual scientist.

“A science fair project addresses that whole project connectedness by letting kids ask their own question, make their own procedure, try it out and maybe (or maybe not) get the answer they wanted. Just the way real science works,” says Danielle Gauci, cochair of the Toronto Science Fair and a science teacher of 10 years. She has seen a wide range of projects over the years and insists the key is not so much the question that a student generates, but rather the experience he or she gains from learning the process of scientific inquiry. The more students can apply their scientific learnings to real life, the more likely they are to stay interested in a topic that has traditionally been seen as a one-way ticket to geekdom. A stereotype, in fact, that is slowly disintegrating.

“People assume the participants will be really ‘nerdy’ kids, but many of them are incredibly well-balanced,” says Reni Barlow, who believes the broadening interest in science is more necessary today than ever in a world increasingly reliant on scientific information for day-to-day tasks.

Says Reni, “Regardless of whether you pursue a career in science, everybody should have an understanding of how science happens and how things work.”

Bring the science fair to class

For all the thousands of students who participate in science fairs, there are still thousands more who don’t because they don’t have the resources – or that one passionate science teacher – to prepare students for fair participation. Mike Newnham is the cofounder and director of Smarter Science, a program for teaching science from Grades 1 to 12 that develops the skills of inquiry, creativity, and innovation. He is hoping to even the playing field for all of Canada’s schools.

“Instead of thinking of the science fair as an added component, make it part of the classroom,” says Mike. Since 2008, Smarter Science has trained Ontario teachers in strategies that teach kids problem solving and critical thinking skills using scientific inquiry, and was the inspiration that led to Jo-Anne Peckham’s owl pellet lesson. As it expands its reach to Prince Edward Island and British Columbia, Mike emphasizes that the goal of Smarter Science is simple: “To make sure that every child in Canada performs one inquirybased project each year.”

Parents, however, might assume that just because their child’s teacher has been trained in Smarter Science, their school has implemented it. The choice to adopt the program is left to each individual teacher, some of whom may be resistant to change. Thankfully, innovative science instruction needn’t be confined to the school lab any more than sport is confined to the gymnasium.

Science-based extracurriculars

While signing kids up for arts or sports is a no-brainer for North American parents, extracurricular science-based clubs aren’t necessarily on their radar. David Ellis, Director of First Robotics Canada, regularly witnesses parents’ excitement when they learn about the volunteer-run national organization in which kids program and design a Lego robot that solves real-world engineering challenges. It culminates in a year-end competition often referred to as the “SuperBowl of Smarts.” It is one of a growing number of organizations offering cerebral alternatives to the usual smorgasbord of afterschool activities. And it’s not just the Einstein wannabes who are lining up to join.

David saw 60 students try out for his school’s 10-member team this year. “It works with all kids because you have drama, literacy, creativity, science and math, along with the competitive side of the program.”

Whether a child learns innovation through home, school or a club, the message is consistently one of empowerment. If a child is not only encouraged to ask questions, but given permission to make mistakes in finding the answers, the seed of innovative thinking will naturally blossom.

Today, Jo-Anne Peckham teaches Grade 7 and 8 students who did not have the benefit of Smarter Science in kindergarten. She notices one difference: “It’s harder to get them to ask the questions.”

Danielle Leonard is a mother of three boys whose science experiments leave her kitchen in a constant state of disaster. She lives in Oakville where she blogs about parenting in the digital age at Porridgereport.com.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November 2012.

By Danielle Leonard| November 12, 2012

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