Project Spotlight: Innovation Institute

Project Spotlight: Innovation Institute

Monday, June 20, 2016

STELAR recently connected with Priya Mohabir, Director of the Alan J. Friedman Center For the Development of Young Scientists at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) and her colleague, David Wells, Director of Maker Programming.  Priya is the Principal Investigator of the Innovation Institute project.  The Innovation Institute (I2) takes high school students through the entire process of inventing a device, software or other technology.  I2 stresses STEM content and process in engineering, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

Can you share how the Innovation Institute works to develop youth entrepreneurship?

The purpose of Innovation Institute (I2) is to catalyze next-generation entrepreneurship. It links to a critical national priority: to create renewed interest in scientific and technological innovation, particularly among young people. Nearly all of the program’s participants are members of underrepresented groups, and most are from first or second-generation immigrant families. This project seeks to advance the field’s understanding of how interventions like I2 can encourage persistence and participation in the STEM workforce.

Innovation Institute also provides opportunities for participants to explore the components of product design.  From identifying the needs of your customer to researching the principles behind that design to getting formative feedback, the participants experience these aspects first hand. In thinking about entrepreneurship, we don’t focus on taking the ideas of students to market, but rather look at building an entrepreneurial mindset where students see opportunities rather than challenges, think outside the box/ creative problem solving, and how to take risks.

Can you describe the types of inventions made by students?

The projects that I2 participants chose to prototype reflected a thoughtful response to the community research they had conducted the previous summer. For example, participants had noticed there were many mothers with young children who struggled to get up and down the elevated subway steps with their strollers, so one idea included a stroller with a three-wheel mechanism that could more easily navigate the stairs. Other ideas included an app designed for local Corona businesses to publicize their activities and use social media to attract and engage their customers with discounts and point systems to award frequent customers; an app for families to use in case of natural disasters or emergencies that would enable them to quickly find health or other services; an expandable shopping bag; and a temporary fix for pot holes using a non-Newtonian fluid that keeps roads drivable until the city is able to provide a more lasting fix.

What are the key ingredients to successfully implementing a makerspace based on your experiences in the project to date? 

In my experience it is crucial to the design, implementation and success of any makerspace to start with the community you will be serving.  What do they (we) need?  How can we, as designers create a structure that supports the needs of the community?

Second, and very much melded with the first, is asking, “Who will be running the space?” The people guiding the experience are integral to creating a safe comfortable atmosphere for the user.  Those are the people that make it work and it is worth the time investment to find people that are passionate, diverse in interests and skills as well as confident, creative and resourceful people.

There are many more aspects I can mention but I will cap it at three.  Leveraging the skill sets of your staff and participants in the program is a key component to building the culture based on collaboration, interaction and trust.  Establishing a group dynamic in which everyone contributes the whole and is heard.  Combining these three aspects will insure, at the least, that your infrastructure for your makerspace is solid, from there it is a matter of following the interests of everyone involved.

How might educators integrate this kind of Maker/entrepreneurial experience in school?

One way that educators might integrate this into what they are doing in schools is by providing opportunities for students to see how the scientific principles they are exploring impacts the design and engineering of products that we use everyday. This allows students to see the relevance and impact of STEM in the day to day lives. Finding ways for students to create mini experiences where students are developing their own theoretical projects give them an opportunity to find their own voice and identify a problem they want to solve, problem solve creatively, and communicate around their process.

What excites you most about the work you do every day?

One of the most exciting aspects of the work that we are doing is the opportunity we are creating for participants to explore the impact they can have on the world around them.  Many times, students do not see the relationship between the content and skills they are learning and the real life applications that those things inform. Through Innovation Institute, participants are able to apply their skills to address a problem or need they themselves have identified through ethnographic research of the community. Throughout the program, it is also very exciting to see their personal growth – their articulation of their work, the confidence it’s delivered with, and the thoughtfulness of their designs make me very excited for the future.

Main Image: