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Know An Innovator

April 25, 2012 Posted by Tony Wagner

Space is limited in any book, so only so many stories can be told. But America is rich with young innovators – it is our country’s primary competitive advantage!

We’d like to spotlight young innovators around America in our blog. So, if you know a young person who is doing something particularly pioneering, in either business or social innovation, please briefly share their story with us, giving details about the nature of the innovation and any help the young innovator may have received from a parent, teacher, or mentor. Before you submit your story, please check with the young innovator whose story you are telling to verify the accuracy and for permission share it. We will review submissions and post those we think will be of greatest interest to our readers.

14 Responses to Know An Innovator

  1. Cecilia Absher says:

    I am writing as the mother of a young innovator – my 13 year old son, Andrew Katz, who has been taking us on a journey since he was very young. 
    From following and relentlessly questioning every contractor, repair and service person who enters our house to spending hours in hardware stores, since he was about four years old, Andrew has displayed a need to find out about how various gadgets, systems (including HVAC, alarm, AV and sprinklers) and appliances work – and noodling on how to improve them.  Of course his enjoyment of reading technical books such as electrical wiring manuals and computer oriented books and his proclivity for taking apart anything he can, also made us wonder at times about what makes him “work”.  As he has grown, he has become very interested in, among other things, security systems, and has done many home projects with security cameras, VCRs (yes we still have a couple), TVs and remote control vehicles.  More recently computer operating systems and programming have captured his curiosity and he has combined this interest with his security-oriented passion to create a secret notification system he calls “Notify Me Now”.  When ultrasonic Ping sensors are tripped a secret message is displayed – your computer background screen silently alerts you to the intruder’s security breach.  You can read about it and his experience with this project in Make Magazine (Vol. 30)
    When I think about what really helps Andrew develop and carry out his ideas, I believe his innate curiosity and passion to learn from anyone he can and to then use his knowledge across disciplines (he is quite adept at analogizing seemingly very different things, for example), coupled with being relatively undeterred by set-backs and things going awry, are really essential ingredients.  I think people like James Dyson and the Mythbusters who celebrate failure and crazy ideas really inspire him and give him latitude to take risks.  Also, he truly loves to be “green” so repurposing old gadgets and trying to extend the useful life of systems is very important to him.  Although he has not had many formal classes to directly engage in his inventing endeavors, he has had the benefit of teachers recognizing his interest in and capability with science and technology and that validation certainly nurtures his passion.  At school teachers celebrate that Andrew reads books such as Joel Brenner’s, America the Vulnerable: Inside the New Threat Matrix of Digital Espionage, Crime, and Warfare,   William Kamkwamba’s, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and Jon Gertner’s, The Idea Factory – Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.  And it is fair to say that we indulge many of his seemingly offbeat requests and try to respect his need for thinking and experimenting time. 
    We are continuing on our journey – whether to science museums and fairs or trips to investigate the engineering of the Roman aqueducts or to Radio Shack and garage sales to search for appliances and gadgets to hack — it is always an adventure.  Of course he loves researching on the internet as well as pouring through his library of books about computer programming, operating systems and electronics projects – he would much rather read and experiment than do his homework.  And thankfully, a community-based Young Makers group, with wonderful peers and outstanding teacher mentors, has added a more social and collaborative element to Andrew’s pursuits. 
    Firmly committed to education and having served on our public school board when my kids were tots, I will continue my learning and pursuit of my own passion – helping as many kids as possible realize their full potential.  Having come to understand personally the importance of self-directed, hands-on exploration to feeding intellectual curiosity and building flexible, mental capacity – which is essential for much true innovation – I am now working hard to bring these kinds of experiences more into the mainstream in our schools.  I hope we can enhance school environments so that more students can undertake project based, open-ended innovative explorations and experiments and learn to problem-solve in practical ways employing knowledge gained from many areas – math, science, social studies, art, etc.  Budget pressure, though strong nearly everywhere, hopefully will yield to the pressure so many of us feel to make education rich with more real world meaning, rewarding of passion and perseverance and very relevant for the future. 
    I am deeply grateful to Tony Wagner for his inspiring and insightful book, Creating Innovators and for his efforts to transform our educational system to be even more impactful by equipping K-12 students with greatly needed 21st Century skills and helping them recognize and develop their talents and abilities while they are highly curious and when self-directed learning is “play” and “passion”.   I would love to see more children so personally invested in their learning that they do not realize that they are being educated!
    Thank you Tony!
     Cecilia Absher, Larchmont, NY

    • Shamica West says:

      Cecilia, as the mother of a 14 year old boy, I am inspired by your son's story and the circle of support that he has amassaed.  I hope and pray that his innovative spirit will grow and we read about him in years to come.

  2. Tony Wagner says:

    Ceclilia, Thank you for this inspiring story.  We need more moms and school board members like you, as well as more students like your son, Andrew.  Have you seen the video about the 9 year old boy, Caine, who created a carboard arcade?  You, your son, and visitors to this website will find it inspiring, I think.  You can watch it here.

  3. Anonymus says:

    As a high school student, I have been given the oppurtunities of interacting with many "interesting" teachers and situtations. One of the best programs I have been exposed to was the "Independent Research" program at the sixth grade and soon to be tenth grade level. This class allows students to chose a topic of self-interest be it desinging a better skateboard to improving the environmental friendliness of their school, while learning research skills, that will be applied in all other aspects of their schooling. Thru this program, I was able to spend time researching and then implementing ways my school could become greener, something I was passionate about. This included creating commericials, designing poster, drafting letters and proposals, as well as giving presentations. Your fantastcic book mentioned that many kids are being forced to engage in rote learning with having facts stuffed down their throat. I agree but feel that this class provides a year long escape and necessary skills to actually put some of the knowledge  you gain to work. While it may be difficult and time consuming battle to change a school system, requiring all students to take this course (it is now only offered to advanced students), may be a step in the right direction. I would like to propose this idea to my school system, may you please let me know if that is a wise choice? Thank you for  your wonderful book: I learned so much about the fallings of our school systems and the alternatives.

  4. I hope you choose to share this story and how one person. Mr. Piontek or as we call him "P" changed my life and how I view education. I am a local kid and grew up on the north shore of Hawaii with both of my parents not valueing education and kept telling me that I just need to graduate from high school. That said I was not a good student and for the most part was a challenge to every person in the school I encountered. I am now a high school senior and the reason I am writing this story is because I transfered into HTA in grade 8 when the school opened and met P at the first meeting for new students. The school seemed very similar to my old schools which I hated because they were so structured and boring. He explained that this school was going to be different so I was skeptical. Classes started and the first two weeks were the same as always BORING and I wanted to drop out. Then the elective classes started and my life changed forever!!!!! I was enrolled in Mr P's 3D animation and game design class, first off I couldn't belive that the principal was a teacher but that he was a gamer and loved engaging students in learning about games and game design. The class was amazing and changed how I learned he taught us to think about the gaming process, learnign process and how things work, interact and change each other. At first it was hard but as time went on and I was riding the bus home (1 1/2 hours each way) the world all started to make sense. I started to see geometry in the real world as he described it and how all things interact with each other. I actually started to love school, well at least his class. Then he messed us all up by collaborating in our class with the science and math class and now it was like I was learning everythign through gaming and design thinking. I went from being an average C/D student to a B+ student because the world makes sense. This is not where it ended for me and now the future is amazing. 
    The next thing that happened to me was life changing and was when I was able to attend a class he was running at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. Mr P took my dad and me with him and one of the coaches who help in the 3D class to teach kids in NYC about 3D gaming and critical thinking. We were even interviewed on the news (http://www.ny1.com/content/124307/middle-schoolers-digitally-reconstruct-long-extinct-sea-life)  I was actually on the NEWS in NYC. The class was amazing and we then worked on a project with the Bishop Museum that featured our work and was a game but even more it had us working with a scientist Dr. Pyle. The coolest thing was my family, friends and anyone who visited the museum could play the game and learn what we learned about the ocean and fish. (http://www.bishopmuseum.org/media/2011/pr11013.html). Mr. P is the most innovative person I know and his program changed all of our lives and it is amazing. Next year I will be in college, yes the first in my family to go to college because of one person, one innovator Mr Piontek!!! 
    Mahalo Nui Loa "P"

  5. Dear Tony,
    Thank you so much for your work on innovators.  As an educator and someone who relates with a number of the stories in your book, I'm passionate about pushing for ways to jump start the play, passion and purpose in my student's work.  I currently work in an international school in the Philippines and as you're probably already aware, your work is being devoured by many in international education, which might provide the perfect labratory for education innovation.  Over the last year I've interviewed over 20 heads of schools at international schools all around the world and many of these leaders are championing your work.  Inspired by a number of these conversation and some of my own work, I'm currently developing a style of teaching that I think has the potential building more innovative students.  I call it Entreprenurial Learning, and it's my hope that as the details come together it will provide a platform for multi-level, multi-discpline, and even community-sponsored learning (if you're interested in checking out some more info on this style of learning click here).
    Again thank you for your work.
    P.S.  How are there only 2 other people who have made comments here?  That seems crazy.

  6. Pelham says:

    Dear Tony,  we have to escape the restrictions of conformity. I run a residential school in India. Our purpose is to educate young people who we hope, in their life, in a variety of ways, will make  communities of people better and more sustainable. We are hampered in our ability to be innovative by expectations and fear. Fear that if our studnets do not follow a recognised program leading to recognised qualifications they will restrict their opportunities. So we are trying to netword and gain recognition for the programmes we want to run. Do you know who we might talk to at a Higher Ed level in colleges and universities, ready to take on risk taking innovators without formal qualifications? Pelham

  7. Don Wettrick says:

    I was just given your book this morning. What a relief!  I teach a class (that my school was nice enough to take a chance on) called "Innovations." Video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a8aZR9rcKlA 
    Basically this group of public high school students are allowed a Google-time like setting. They collaborate with each other, question what needs to be improved, research, find top people (experts outside of school, family) and collaborate with them, usually through Skype.
    The projects they have been working on are too vast and awesome for this short post. However, (and most importantly) they are collaborating with really great people. We had the honor to work with Daniel Pink earlier in the year, not to mention several CEOs of smaller start-ups in Seattle, San Francisco, and Beijing. There is even a good chance our school might convert over to solar power because of a students persistence. 
    Anyway, I am only through chapter two and feel that I HAVE to get in touch with the author. I am really proud of what we have done, and I feel as though I can provide some insight on how to replicate this in every school. 
    You can contact me at: dwettrick@gmail.com 
    Our new (and VERY basic) website is: innovatefranklin.org

  8. As the principal at the United Nations International School in Manhattan, I was fortunate enough to be in a position to make change for the students and shift thinking towards innovation and design thinking. Over the past two years we have created a soundproof space for students from KG -4th grade to work on problem solving using the design thinking model. There are digital tools as well as hammers and a soundproofing floor. The tables are covered in whiteboard laminate in the spirit of collaborative work and project planning. We have called this room the CoLaboratory. It is a highlight for many of our students and I would be very happy to share our planning process, design and curriculum information with other educators looking to move in this important direction. I can be reached at jjenkins@unis.org.
    thank you for your import book, I have added it to my suggested reading list for all teachers this summer!
    Jacqueline Jenkins

  9. My 12-year old daughter is an innovator.  Since she was 4, she wanted to be an astronaut.  She has outgrown that notion but still loves science and engineering.  Just over a year ago, she started programming a Raspberry Pi mini Linux computer.  She blogs, tweets, and Instagrams (is that a word?) about her adventures at http://raspberrypikid.wordpress.com and has over 90,000 views.  One of the highlights of her young educational career was meeting Eben Upton, the inventor of the Raspberry Pi.
    Krystal recently was a finalist in the Broadcom MASTERS science competition and met President Obama.  3,000 middle schoolers applied for the honor and 30 were selected from all across the country.  Krystal was one of the 30 and was selected as a "Rising Star" from that elite group.  As a result, she'll be participating in the International Broadcom MASTERS as one of two US representatives with 28 other teens from 15 countries in May in Los Angeles.
    Krystal also is on a FIRST FTC Robotics team.  Her entire team is made up of rookie 7th graders and they were one of the few middle school teams at the Los Angeles Regional Championships several weeks ago.  Her team finished in 9th place and the 8 teams above hers were all high school or mixed high school/middle school teams.
    Krystal has begun a YouTube Channel called "Cool Science Experiments for Kids" where she features inexpensive science devices that kids can use to fulfill their thirst for great science activities (see this example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9qzC9DkVhY).  She has had thousands of views of her handful of videos so far.  Krystal has completed the "Hour of Code," the 20-hour Hour of Code follow up tutorials, and knows the fundamentals of Scratch, Python, and RobotC programming.
    Krystal has made a PowerPoint with pictures and videos of some of her science adventures to encourage other kids to participate in science and Science Fair.  It can be downloaded here: https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/10328230/Top10Reasons.ppsx.  It is a large file because it has her voice in it as well as lots of pictures and videos.  Since making that video, she has also added to her list that she now dabbles in CAD and regularly uses the school's 3D printer.  She has presented at several Science Fair Expo events, a STEM Leadership Network Meeting, the STEP Conference, and several other science events for kids.
    Krystal now attends a STEM Charter School and is at the top of her highly successful class.  She has won medals at the County Science Fair every year since 4th grade.  She has been a Skype guest speaker at numerous events such as CoderDojo, Girl Scouts, and Science/Math night events nation-wide.  She has subscriptions to Make Magazine, Scientific American, Scientific American Mind, Wired Magazine, and Popular Science as well as numerous Maker/Hacker podcasts and websites.
    Krystal has her mind set on attending either CalTech or MIT and she has shown that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to.  She is definitely an innovator.

  10. Kyra says:

    As a mother of three I think some of the best ideas for innovation stems from moments of complete boredom. Grand thoughts can enter their minds. One of the best ways is to be out in nature and to expose them to the intricacies of life as well as the simplicity. The velcro we use with so many products was an outgrowth of an inventor observing a certain plant that has an adhesion quality.  My son has created so many inventions when I ask him to turn off the electronics such as the TV on or his iphone and just be. I believe that level of innovation can continue if we give them the space and time.

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