Team members at Gizmo-CDA in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, work on creating a car customized for Barrett Limtiaco-Ruppel, a boy with cerebral palsy. (Photograph by Barbara Mueller) 

In many traditional classroom settings, students do not spend a lot of time honing their problem-solving skills or considering how their work could help those around them. But a new program is encouraging them to do so outside of school. This spring, more than 10,000 young people in 17 countries participated in the Inventor’s Challenge, a contest that asks kids from kindergarten through high school to build something that addresses a problem in their school or community.

Although adults around the world have long participated in “maker” contests, events for children like the Inventor’s Challenge are relatively new. This March, thousands of children submitted video presentations to judges who evaluated their ideas based on age groupIn many traditional classroom settings, students do not spend a lot of time honing their problem-solving skills or considering how their work could help those around them. But a new program is encouraging them to do so outside of school. This spring, more than 10,000 young people in 17 countries participated in the Inventor’s Challenge, a contest that asks kids from kindergarten through high school to build something that addresses a problem in their school or community. Although adults around the world have long participated in “maker” contests, events for children like the Inventor’s Challenge are relatively new. This March, thousands of children submitted video presentations to judges who evaluated their ideas based on age group and “originality, inspiration to help others, and overall creativity of design and presentation.” Top-voted designs included an 11-year-old’s “Swiss army” cane that offered features such as a glasses holder and flashlight for seniors like her grandfather, and a high school team’s app to streamline the college scholarship application process.

“We’re not trying to change schools,” says Mike McGalliard, the executive director of the Imagination Foundation, a nonprofit that sponsored the Imagination Challenge in collaboration with AT&T. “We’re trying to change culture so that creativity becomes a core social value. Kids learn best through play and through opportunities to pursue their curiosity through creative projects.”

One group of students aged 8 to 13, working with a makerspace (a workshop where groups of people work together to make things) called Gizmo-CDA in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, designed a car for a wheelchair-bound boy with cerebral palsy in their community named Barrett Limtiaco-Ruppel. The students spent six hours per week over two months fully customizing the car for Barrett. The final product sports a cushy seat positioned so that Barrett can extend his arms to grasp a front bar while strapped into the car, enabling him to sit upright despite his low upperbody strength. The car’s interior is padded with foam so that he does not fall out by accident.

“We underestimate the resourcefulness of a child who wants to take their ideas and make them a reality,” says Barbara Mueller, the team’s leader and cofounder of Gizmo-CDA. “If you imagine a place where kids are forming the path of their learning out of curiosity and passion, you are seeing a place where a child can learn the skills to build a car for a 5-year-old with cerebral palsy.” Before designing Barrett’s vehicle—engineered from parts of a preexisting child’s batterypowered ride-on play car—the team of students spent a day trying to perform routine activities while limiting the use of their hands, legs, sight, and hearing in order to understand a disabled child’s experience.

“Rather than doing the work for them, we modeled it for them and they created it,” Mueller says. “We taught them how to solder and how a circuit works. And we told them to just start, even if they didn’t know how to start; that eventually you will get there. They learned how to take a complex problem and break it down into doable parts that they can solve.”

Gizmo-CDA is one of 100 Imagination Foundation chapters in 20 countries such as Pakistan, Liberia, Colombia, and Italy. Run by volunteers like Mueller, these chapters operate independently but are networked together, engaging in peer-to-peer learning and collaborating on projects. They also provide many of the Imagination Challenge submissions, though far from all of them.

“The heart of the constructionist theory of learning—which people call project-based learning—teaches that the things that you remember are rich and complicated and not streamlined for easy consumption in the classroom,” says Kylie Peppler, an associate professor of learning sciences at the University of Indiana. “Students have been taught using abstraction. But abstraction is really hard for a lot of kids, so it’s important to give them a chance to learn through experience in a real-world context.”

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