Have you ever wondered what your daughter’s future would be like if, at a very young age, she had an idea that could improve life for countless people? Shalini Kumari, at the age of 12, noticed a need of her physically handicapped grandfather to climb stairs and had an idea for an adjustable walker. Shalini submitted her idea and won the National Innovation Foundation (NIF-India) IGNITE award for young innovators. NIF-India developed her prototype, which Kaviraa Solutions is now converting into a product to sell to thousands of people. As Shalini’s story shows, innovation at a young age increases value to our lives and advances society around the world.
Why inspire innovation in girls at such a young age? Around the age of five, gender stereotypes from society and culture of the traditionally masculine fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) begin to appear. Inspiring innovation in young girls prepares them for the 21st century economy by developing problem solving skills, critical analysis, creativity, risk taking and learning from failure. Innovation especially in STEM propels our technology-driven economy forward. In order to bring about the best innovations in this world, we would be remiss to ignore 50% of the world’s brainpower and talent.
Here are 10 ways to inspire young girls to be innovators.
- Let her know she is capable of anything
Traditionally, engineering and mathematics are considered as “male” fields and the arts are considered as a “female” field. Teaching young girls that they can excel in any field allows them not to accept the status quo. Most innovators and inventors in the past have been men. In order to close the gender gap, start at a young age to let her know she can be anything. We hear statements said to young girls such as “don’t get your dress dirty”, “that’s for boys”. Such language discourages girls to explore their interest in subjects like engineering or mathematics.
- Find a female mentor who is a leader in the field of STEM
A mentor serves not only as an advisor, but also a role model to inspire young girls to identify with being an innovator and a leader. The mentoring process helps young girls develop their career goals by understanding the beneficial impact of a field so they can assess its pros and cons. A female mentor is able to provide a real-world example of what life is like as a woman balancing a career and family. Reach out to professional organizations such as the Indian Women Scientists’ Association (IWSA) to find a mentor. As a quick start, you can watch TED talks from women innovators together.
- Be a ‘Facilitator’ of creativity and learning
Most learning environments are passive, allowing children to listen and be consumers of knowledge. Facilitated learning is a guided process that allows children to think independently and become creators. By hands-on creating, learners develop 21st century skills that are important for innovation. As a parent facilitator, you can provide an environment that supports novel thinking and creativity at home. One of the best ways for young children to learn is through hands-on ‘making’ projects that are meaningful to them. The process of ‘making’ is a great way to think creatively, break-down complex problems, address challenges as they design and build projects. Facilitating is not about the facilitator being the expert but more stepping in to guide the learner. You can guide her by letting her drive the project in her own direction and by providing materials or resources along the way. Ask open-ended questions to let her arrive at her own answers and let her experience mistakes and provide support to work through it. Through the process, ask “so what”, “what if” questions, that help deepen and challenge thinking.
- Having a ‘Growth Mindset’ to increase brain performance
Most people think that we are born smart, average or unintelligent and we stay that way for the rest of our life. This is not true. Brain research by Dr. Carol Dweck at Stanford University shows that children that have a ‘growth mindset’ understand that intelligence can be developed through training, effort and persistence and concentrate on improving instead of a preoccupation with their intelligence. Research also shows that girls that practiced the growth mindset received higher mathematics standardized test scores. Just like a muscle, when you ‘exercise’ your brain by learning something new, parts of the brain change and become larger in size. Exercising your brain by persistently practicing learning makes you use your brain in a smarter way. If the focus is shifted towards learning more and building brain potential, girls will be able to strengthen their intellect. The result of the growth mindset is high achievement, productivity and motivation.
- Encourage learning concepts and not just facts
In India, memorization and rote learning are very common and there is little emphasis on concept-based learning. Performing well on tests and exams is important, but in order to innovate, children need to understand concepts by analysis, investigation and evaluation. Concept-based learning helps children to transfer their knowledge from one concept to another, which helps them “problem-solve” new and complex problems. On the other hand, facts are not transferable.
- Learn about entrepreneurship
How do you turn an idea into a business? Teaching young girls entrepreneurship allows them to take ownership of an idea they have and it builds confidence as they visualize the output and impact. Owning a business is not the only goal when learning about entrepreneurship — it develops skills such as risk taking and money/time management. If young girls view risks as ‘opportunities’ that others do not see, they will function as strong leaders that make difficult decisions and not be just a follower.
- Foster curiosity and exploration
We are born curious. As babies and children, we explore the foreign world around us to understand, learn and makes sense of it. Brain research has revealed that increased curiosity prepares our brain for better learning and long-term memory. Peter Diamandis from the XPRIZE Foundation made a great statement to inspire curiosity and exploration that leads to innovation – “What should be possible that doesn’t yet exist?” Encourage young girls to be curious and to figure out for themselves how things work. Foster ‘flexible’ thinking that teaches girls to see things from different perspectives.
- Solving real-world problems
Shalini Kumari recognized a real problem that her grandfather faced. It is not difficult for young children to come up with what would seem like a wild solution to a problem. Most children feel limited by resources and know-how to follow-through on their ideas to make it a reality and therefore abandon their innovative thinking. Cultivate problem identification and discussing different ways to solve the problem and finding simple, do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions to fix the problem to make life easier. Encourage finding real-world problems faced in the community or the world and brainstorm solutions, choose one and solve the problem. Hands-on building and demonstrating a solution helps build confidence in girls’ abilities to innovate.
- Incorporate her personal interests into innovation
Young girls will be more excited to innovate when bringing in their own interests and passions into the process. If they are not interested in innovation, it is hard to push them into it without involving a personal interest of theirs. For example if there is a hobby she is passionate about, find ways to include that into a project-based activity.
- Failure is a part of innovation
Innovation does not happen in an instant. It is an iterative process of trial and error. Creating an environment for young girls to increase the number of ‘trials’ and continuously try new things, allows more failure, but more importantly, more success. Failure often times serves a valuable learning lesson in what works well and what does not.