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  • Saloni Gupta and Ramesh Veluthedan

Can Schools Teach Innovation?

Part 1 - The Think & Make program improves students’ abilities to explore new untested approaches to solve problems.


The Skill Gap


"The World Bank estimates one billion young people will enter the job market in the next decade but only 40% will find jobs that currently exist. An urgent shift in education is needed to foster job creation and the corresponding skills of innovation and entrepreneurship".


Employers, educationalists and policymakers are finding that recent graduates are unprepared to succeed in the workforce because they lack foundational “soft skills.”


The fact that the young graduates lack the soft skills needed to successfully navigate the VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) and how the present education system is not equipping the students with the skills they need to succeed has been widely discussed and is a cause for concern.


What is Innovation?


Innovation, one important soft skill, often defined as the production of knowledge or solutions that create value, through experimentation is considered as a prerequisite for economic growth of a nation and prosperity of its citizens. The future of an economy, the strength of democracy, and even the health of the planet's ecosystem greatly depends on educating future generations to innovate. The National Curriculum Framework, NITI Aayog’s Atal Innovation Mission as well as the Atal Tinkering Labs are a step in this direction by the government.


Despite ample evidence highlighting the importance of fostering students’ innovation, our education system is yet to prioritize teaching it in our schools. What does innovation mean in formal education? How can it be taught and learnt, and how do we know whether students have acquired it?


Think and Make Program - intervention aimed at teaching Innovation in Schools


In this context, Inqui-lab designed a unique program called Think and Make with an aim to foster innovation skills in middle school students. The Think & Make is a two-year long intervention program which provides opportunities for students to explore and solve problems in their surroundings through a design thinking approach. In the year 2022, the first year of the program was piloted in 40 government residential schools in Telangana, covering 3200 students.


Research Study - testing the efficacy of Think and Make


The first year of the intervention was subjected to a randomized field experiment to study its impact on innovation skills. The study was designed and executed by Saloni Gupta, an independent research scholar from Columbia University’s Teachers College.


Experimental Design


40 schools each were randomly allocated to the treatment and control groups from a sampling frame of 286 social welfare government schools in Telangana. The students in the treatment group participated in the weekly Think & Make sessions throughout the year. At the end of the program, both treatment and control group students developed a solution for the problem identified by them.

The following four measures of innovation were used in the study.

  1. The Lemonade Stand Game to measure students ability to explore new untested approaches and determine higher value-added solutions.

  2. Ability to develop innovative solutions.

  3. Seed grants raised for the solutions in a Shark Tank event.

  4. Feedback on the developed solutions from the user community.

Measuring Innovation - The Lemonade Stand Game


As a part of the test, students control the operations of a computerized lemonade stand and must optimize their choices of a)location, b) ingredients and c) price to discover a more profitable strategy [adapted version of the task used by Ederer and Manso (2008)]. The experiment lasts 20 rounds. 10 Practice rounds encourage students to experiment continuously and 10 Live rounds provide an incentive to be a winner in the class. In each round, students make decisions on how to run the lemonade stand. These decisions involve the location of the stand, the sugar, the lemon and the masala content and the price, yielding 2376 possible combinations.


At the end of each round, students learn the profits they obtained during that round. But students do not know the profits associated with each of the available choices. Thus, the students face the choice between fine-tuning the product choice decisions given to them or exploring different locations and product mix (sugar, price, masala and lemon) to discover a more profitable strategy. For eg: a student could choose to sell lemonade at the Market with a few ingredients and make a decent profit, however, upon tinkering the location to a busier School, the profit margin would go up.


Learnings from the Lemonade Stand Game


Students in the treatment group explored more than students in the control group by experimenting with more unique combinations of input choices in an attempt to find profitable strategies. This difference was found to be statistically significant (p < 0.01) with an effect size of 0.14 SD.


More students in the treatment group were able to reach higher profits than students in the control group. This difference was found to be statistically significant (p < 0.05) with an effect size of 0.08 SD.


These findings from the Lemonade Stand Game indicate that the Think and Make program had a moderate impact on students' ability to explore new untested approaches and reach higher profits.


Conclusion


Preliminary results from the research study conclusively suggest that the Think & Make program fosters innovation and promotes tinkering. This leads to the development of a problem solving mindset where individuals are not apathetic to the problems that exist in their communities and are eager to find meaningful solutions to them, and have the agency to effect that change as well.

As innovation is also about developing a new product that has market value, the impact of the program on innovation was also examined based on the innovativeness of the solutions developed, funds raised in a shark tank challenge and feedback from the user community. We will share findings from this study in Part 2 of the blog. Stay tuned!

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