Solving Everyday Problems with a Little Innovation
Tuesday, April 3, 2012
When someone sneezes, a typical response from a bystander might be to say "Bless you!" or offer some tissue paper. For pupils involved in Pei Hwa Presbyterian Primary School's Innovation Programme (IvP) however, this scenario sets the wheels in their heads turning - how could they alleviate the sneezing symptoms of someone who caught the flu bug?
Primary 6 pupils Chen Jia Wei and Samuel Quek devised the prototype for an "Ultra Flu Relief Mask", comprising a disposable surgical mask with an inbuilt semi-permeable membrane that secretes a flu reliever such as Vicks. Their efforts, which emerged out of the year-long IvP aimed at encouraging students to generate creative ways to solve problems, led to their project being among those shortlisted for the Tan Kah Kee Young Innovators' Award 2011.
"The IvP is an open curriculum," explains Mrs Charmaine Wee, who was the teacher in charge in 2011. "As teachers, we don't tell pupils what to do but we ask them probing questions instead. They make the eventual decisions themselves."
The IvP exposes students to creative and critical thinking tools like SCAMPER, and problem-solving skills such as how to construct a problem statement, which then culminates in the construction of a prototype. "Through questioning techniques, students come up with their own ideas and take greater responsibility towards their own learning, rather than merely following instructions," Mrs Wee adds.
Another IvP team, made up of Pri 6 students Koh Kay Lin and Cheryl Tay, developed a prototype for a piece of multi-purpose furniture. This furniture can be converted into a picnic mat, a seat or a storage unit by reconfiguring its assembly of puzzle-like pieces. This allows someone to use space more efficiently - a useful consideration for people who live in homes with tight spaces. Along with the Ultra Flu Relief Mask, this piece of furniture was also selected to be showcased at the Young Innovators' Fair 2011 held at Singapore Polytechnic.
Partners in problem-solving
The IvP brings together diverse partners such as MOE's gifted education branch, teachers from other schools, lecturers from polytechnics who act as expert mentors to the pupils, and leading corporations such as 3M and Trek to support the pupils' problem-solving prototypes. For example, Samuel gives due credit to the guidance of his expert mentors, enabling his group to greatly improve the Ultra Flu Relief Mask. While the first version was cobbled together out of cotton wool and scotch tape, he describes the current version as "much more presentable in design."
Another critical source of support were the pupils' indefatigable parents, who offered feedback, chaperoned their children to their group members' homes, rearranged other plans to carve out more time for the IvP projects, helped procure some of the materials needed and cheered their children on when their prototypes were presented at the Young Innovators' Fair. "When we needed help in compiling a video of the students making their prototype, we were so grateful that the parents chipped in," says Mrs Wee. "Such projects provide opportunities for parents to take up a greater role in their child's learning process, as well as foster a stronger bond between parents and child,"
To encourage creativity, it's crucial for the feedback given to be non-judgmental. Ms Noelle Chow, one of the teachers in charge of IvP, explains, "During brainstorming, we tell students to generate as many ideas as possible without criticism, even when an idea may not seem viable initially. It helps them to look at things from different perspectives."
Through teamwork, the students have also learnt the delicate art of compromise. "We had to decide what time to meet, adapt to each other's schedules, learn how to approach problems when we had different points of view, and decide who to bring what materials," recalls Kay Lyn. But working together also had its sweet rewards. As Kay Lyn goes on to say, "When we were presenting our prototype together to a large audience at Singapore Polytechnic, I found it quite scary at first. But then I remembered that Cheryl was standing next to me, and I felt less afraid."
Towards bigger ideas
Having to constantly develop better revisions of the prototypes also signals the importance of getting feedback from others, be it positive or negative. "Now, I tend to look at my work and constantly think of ways to improve it instead of just passing it up on the first try," shares Cheryl. "Although I am shy at times, I force myself to ask others for feedback because that's one way I can improve."
Jia Wei chimes in, "When my first idea was rejected, I felt down but I did not give up as there are many other ideas I can come up with." A rejected idea also can become a springboard for greater inspiration and motivate one to keep going. As Jia Wei shares, "One of my favourite inventors is Albert Einstein, because even up to his death, he was still persistently searching for the big bang theory!"
From the teacher's perspective, Mrs Wee says, "What I really appreciate about this programme is that it complements the academic curriculum by teaching innovation and entrepreneurship skills. It changes the way the students think and makes them more observant of the world around them." Although the programme was open only to selected Pri 5 pupils in previous years, the skills taught in IvP will be introduced to selected Pri 4 pupils from this year, in the hope that it would inspire them to step up and try to solve problems around them.