Ideas to help you think inside, outside, and upside down in the box
Tanner Walls of Cecilia and Noah Vo of Rineyville-both eighth-graders at West Hardin Middle School-sat huddled over their creations, making careful modifications like seasoned engineers.
Their goal: to build a catapult-like ping pong launcher out of nothing but K'NEX building blocks and rubber bands.
After a little trial and error, Tanner opted to build his catapult with as much weight as possible on one side to maximize its leverage. Then he gave it one last try.
"Oh, that will work. Look at that!" Tanner shouted, as his ping pong sailed across the room.
Across the hall, teams of students from Frankfort's Bondurant Middle School and Owensboro's College View Middle School worked to build miniature dams out of papier-mache, newspaper, and straws. Upstairs, other students raced cars made out of Rice Krispies Treats and LifeSavers, or built towers out of spaghetti and marshmallows.
There were no textbooks nearby. No chalkboards. No tests, or homework, or quizzes.
But the dozens of middle schoolers-in Lexington that weekend to compete at the Kentucky state finals of the 2011 MATHCOUNTS academic competition-were nonetheless learning very hands-on lessons about math, physics, and engineering, thanks to a special night planned for them by the University of Kentucky Center for Applied Energy Research.
That's the power of a creative educational approach: it's learning masked as fun.
"Events like this are extremely important," says teacher Robin Risner, the MATHCOUNTS coach at West Hardin Middle School. "If you only do dry, boring textbook and paper problems, the kids don't know what to do with it. They don't understand the application. They think, 'Why does it matter? How does it apply?' But with hands-on activities, they see the application. They get it, and it encourages them to keep learning, and going for even higher-level concepts."
Finding the hook
Used to be, the "three R's" in education were reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Times have changed, and so have students' needs. It's time to introduce "three new R's: relevance, reinforcement, and retention," says marketing instructor and professional educational speaker Bobby Brooks of Prospect.
Through his Keeping Them Engaged workshops, Brooks, who is also an adjunct professor at several area colleges, travels the region talking with K-12 and higher education teachers, sharing his own time-tested and creative strategies to make lesson plans relevant and fun for students using props and costumes, interactive games and skits, music, even magic tricks.
Brooks has been known to dress up as a chef, a boxer, even a giant dollar bill to drive home his points.
"The sky's the limit. Really, it's up to the creativity of the instructor and how far they want to take it," he says. "It's all about taking the real world and bringing it into the classroom where it's real and students can touch it, feel it. I call it teaching in 3D."
Finding that "hook" that gets kids excited about learning is crucial, agrees Jim Reneau of Russell, Kentucky, an assistant professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, Ohio.
As coach of a FIRST LEGO League team in Greenup County, Reneau has seen how the allure of building with LEGOs is what initially draws kids into that unique program, as well as others similar to it, like the RCX (Robo Challenge Xtreme) robotics tournament, sponsored by Georgetown College and other partners.
LEGOs are what first attracted Reneau's daughter, Anna, to her FIRST LEGO League team four years ago. But once kids get involved, they soon see there's much more to it than just tiny building blocks.
FIRST LEGO League, for kids ages 9-14, actually judges teams on four components: the design of the LEGO robot they must build, their robot's performance, a research presentation on a real-world problem, and a teamwork aspect.
"FIRST, the organization that started this program along with LEGO, touts it as a sport for the mind," says John Inman, a science outreach coordinator at Western Kentucky University, which hosts the Kentucky FIRST LEGO League championships each year. "It really fosters students' creativity and interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. And it combines those things with something that's really fun and exciting."
Teams receive their assignments in September so they have several months to work on their solutions. Regionals are held in December, the state tournament in January, and the world competition in April.
Earlier this year, Reneau's team, the LEGO Barbarians, won first place at the state tournament hosted by WKU and went on to compete at the world festival in St. Louis.
With the assigned "Body Forward Challenge" theme, the team first had to build their own LEGO Mindstorm robot out of LEGO blocks and program it to accomplish required "missions" on a 4x8 foot mat that imitated real medical procedures (like moving a LEGO piece meant to simulate a pacemaker into a LEGO heart or placing a LEGO shunt into a simulated LEGO artery).
For their research project, the LEGO Barbarians devised and engineered their own functional prosthetic leg fashioned out of bamboo, an old tennis shoe, some auto body fiberglass, and two-liter bottles.
It was member Tanner Sexton's idea to use the bamboo from his neighbor's yard, when the team was looking for materials that would be strong yet inexpensive.
Reneau says he was inspired by the innovation and ability of his team when he stepped out of their way.
"I wasn't in their face. I'd give them an idea to think about, and then I'd go off and get a soda. This was about their creativity, and their having fun," he says.
David Walsh, coach of the LaRue County RoboHawks FIRST LEGO League team, says the program does a great job fostering students' creative thinking strategies and helps them expand how they look at problems.
When members come to a competition and see how other teams' robot designs and programming techniques differed from their own, "they realize, there was this whole other approach to tackling the mission" that perhaps they'd not considered, says Walsh.
Still, while the program stresses all of that-science and engineering and robotics along with what it calls "gracious professionalism," encouraging respect, teamwork, and cooperation among team members-the lessons are woven so subtly into the creativity of the LEGO building that kids don't feel like they're learning. It just feels like fun.
"I love building with the LEGOs," says 10-year-old RoboHawks member Parker Smith of Hodgenville. "It's cool just using my imagination to build."
Turn them loose
Design and build a structure out of just wood, glue, and aluminum foil that is 7.5 to 9 inches tall and no more than 25 grams in weight, strong enough to support 5 pounds of weight or more.
Sound impossible? Six second-graders from Lexington's Rosa Parks Elementary gave it a go earlier this year as part of the Destination ImagiNation (DI) program, a unique extracurricular activity that combines creative problem solving with a little engineering, science, and math know-how, a bit of drama and fine arts, and lots of teamwork and creativity.
For weeks, the team-who called themselves the Original Creators of Extreme Thinking-considered how they might build their structure. Finally, they settled on member Evelyn Hinz's truly creative approach: they boiled wooden reeds until they were soft, then wove them together like a basket. They used foil and glue to secure the ends of the reeds together for extra stability.
In addition to their wood structure, the team also had to create an eight-minute skit that incorporated a talent and published verse. And write their own poem. And be prepared to think on their feet to do an on-the-spot "instant challenge" that could be anything from creating a commercial about eating healthy foods to moving cotton balls across a room using only toothpicks.
Because it encompasses so many aspects, Destination ImagiNation is a great fit for students who have an array of interests, says Kim Halwes, the DI affiliate director for Kentucky.
And while traditional academic teams may emphasize quick recall, factual accuracy, and memorization, Destination ImagiNation-true to its name-is all about creativity, creativity, creativity. That's why, even though the Original Creators' wooden structure ultimately weighed too much to earn full credit at the state DI competition, what mattered most was the creative process of building itself.
"It's not about having a right answer. It's about having students think outside the box," says Jonny Lifshitz, who managed the Rosa Parks team with co-manager Margaret Wesley. "For example, they may give you a shoe for a prop, and if you use it as a shoe, you almost get negative points. But if you turn it into anything else-if it becomes a miniature rowboat or something-then you get double points."
DI is also great at building teamwork, compromise, and communication skills, Lifshitz says.
During one instant challenge practice session, members of his team were losing time debating whether to pretend to use a boat or a car in their performance. Then, one member quickly came to the rescue with a creative solution: they would call it a ferry-that way, they could use both a boat and a car.
DI team managers aren't supposed to direct the teams in any way, but instead encourage students to follow their own creativity, Halwes explains.
"It's amazing when you don't tell students what to do, how efficient and creative they are, and how well they work together when it's totally up to them," she says.
Putting creativity to work
Of course, it's not just K-12 programs that emphasize the power of creativity.
Creativity is stressed "across the board" for students in the Entrepreneurship MBA program at the University of Louisville's unique Forcht Center for Entrepreneurship, says center director Dr. Van G.H. Clouse.
"We talk about creativity and innovation a lot in our program," Clouse says. "Because if you're entering the market with a solution that's just like everybody else's solution, you're probably not going to be very successful."
While traditional MBA programs may offer one or two courses on entrepreneurship, the Forcht Center's Entrepreneurship MBA program is unique to the region in that it covers all MBA topics from an entrepreneurial perspective, Clouse says.
That approach has helped UofL teams fare well in business planning competitions both regionally and nationally.
UofL's Cuddle Clones team-whose business plan involves creating look-alike stuffed animals based on photos people submit of their pets-won the grand prize at the 2011 Idea State U, an annual business plan competition sponsored by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development.
Another UofL team, TNG Pharmaceuticals, won more than $640,000 in prizes at Rice University's business plan competition earlier this year and took top honors at the 2011 Venture Labs Investment Competition (VLIC) Global Championship-known as the "Super Bowl" of business plan competitions-for its proposed marketing of a patented horn fly vaccine for cattle. Their total winnings from all four competitions came to nearly $850,000. "It's all about having an idea that's right for its time," Clouse says.
And beyond graduation-outside the scope of classroom walls-keeping those creative ideas flowing is vitally important to maintaining the health of any business or workplace team.
Even as adults, being creative is key.
That's why Louisville's WorkShop, The Creative Work Place, which has several fun, colorful, funky meeting rooms available for rent, is such an in-demand place to meet.
"Our environment plays a huge role in how we think, create, and process," says WorkShop co-owner Stephanie Ringer. "By taking people out of their typical workspace, they can be open to fresh thinking…A fun, happy, positive environment invites participants to believe any future is possible. The more comfortable you are, the more creative you can be."
Each year, the IdeaFestival brings some of the world's most innovative thinkers-from an array of disciplines-to Louisville for a series of lectures and performances certain to inspire your own creativity. Don't miss out on the fun. This year's festival will be held September 21-24 at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts. Here are just a few of the many keynote speakers scheduled to appear:
• Leonard Mlodinow, physicist, former Star Trek writer, and co-author of The Grand Design with Stephen Hawking, discussing the influence of randomness in our everyday lives.
• Azure Antoinette, poet, photographer, and spoken-word artist, discussing the importance of maintaining our humanity in todayï¿½s fast-paced world.
• Aubrey de Grey, British scientist, discussing the ending of aging and potential for radical life extension.
• Sheril Kirshenbaum, scientist and author, discussing her recent book The Science of Kissing.
• Wes Moore, business leader and author, discussing his recent book, The Other Wes Moore.
For ticket information and festival details go to www.ideafestival.com.
Looking for programs to promote creativity? For K-12 programs, start by checking with your child's teacher, principal, or guidance counselor. The programs highlighted here are just a sampling of the many extracurricular programs available today that cater to just about any interest you can imagine-from academic and drama teams to art, robotics, and future problem solving.
For adults, check out the programs offered by your local library, community college or technical school, and county Extension offices. With just a little hunting, you can easily find low-cost classes that let you explore a wide range of creative outlets-from knitting or cake decorating to scrapbooking or woodworking.
A competitive math program for middle school students, it involves group academic team-style competitions and assessment on individual, written math tests.
National Web site: www.mathcounts.org
Kentucky Web site: www.kec.affiniscape.com/index.cfm (click on "MATHCOUNTS" to the left)
FIRST LEGO League
National Web site: www.firstlegoleague.org
Western Kentucky University FIRST LEGO League site: www.wku.edu/kyfll
RCX (Robo Challenge Xtreme)
Similar to FIRST LEGO, students get assignments months prior to the tournament and develop their strategies before arriving; emphasis is on gracious conduct toward other teams and teamwork. The RCX challenge has three divisions: elementary, middle school, and high school.
www.campbellcountyschools.org, search for "Robo"
National Web site: www.idodi.org
Kentucky Web site: www.ky-di.org
KEEPING THEM ENGAGED.COM
UofLï¿½s FORCHT CENTER FOR ENTREPRENEURSHIP
www.business.louisville.edu and search for "Forcht Center"
IDEA STATE U
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: Meet TED
Have you heard of TED? The "TED" originally stood for Technology, Entertainment, Design. This unique Web site lets you view hundreds of TEDTalks, free, online interviews and presentations by some of the world's most creative people. Go to TED.