Over the weekend, I had the chance to attend the Junior FIRST Lego League competition at the Rochester Institute of Technology. My daughter’s team, The Barnstormers, were competing in this year’s Disaster Blaster contest theme. Her team made an impressive model of a snowy mountain, complete with a working avalanche no less! Their motorized conveyor belt system helped win them the “Amazing Movement” award in the closing ceremony. More on the conveyor in a moment…
At the opening ceremony, the following video played. It was the first 30 seconds of the video that really caught my attention.
[youtube url=”http://youtu.be/7htc6iHS4mo” rel=”0″]
Those 30 seconds share examples of people that “got so much more than they thought” from their inventions. They are not talking about personal gains, but about the innovations themselves. They thought they were making A, but ended up getting B instead… or as well. And B was far more useful to people than A.
When that part of the video finished, I couldn’t help but think of Steven Johnson‘s book: Where Good Ideas Come From. This book is easily my favorite book regarding innovation and the conditions that nurture it. I owe it it’s own post on my blog, but Jonathan Martin‘s two posts – one on the Connected Principals blog and the other on his own blog – offer excellent insights into how this “business book” can be used in educational settings.
In the video, the innovation pattern of exaption is showcased. Exaption is when something that was intended for one purpose, ends up being extremely useful in another purpose – a borrowing of ideas and functionality. Johnson’s book gives examples around evolution, like feathers being used for warmth but then being useful for flying. He also gives technology examples, like punch cards being used to help weavers create complex patterns, but then being used later to program computers. His example of a simple match helps describe exaption and it’s important connection to the adjacent possible:
[pullquote4 quotes=”true” align=”center”]A match you light to illuminate a darkened room turns out to have a completely different use when you open a doorway and discover a room with a pile of logs and a fireplace in it. A tool that helps you see in one context ends up helping you keep warm in another. That’s the essence of exaptation.[/pullquote4]
So how does this relate back to the conveyor from the Lego model…
A conveyor belt it typically used to move things horizontally or raise things up an incline. Rarely do they use conveyor belts to launch things, but farmer’s have been known to do it :-) For The Barnstormers, they needed a way to shoot Lego bricks down their mountain to simulate an avalanche. They elected to use a conveyor belt system to accomplish this, despite this not being the function of a belt. It was a perfect demonstration of exaption, found through the ingenuity of some second graders that elected to participate in this Lego League. And it wasn’t just my daughter’s team that did this, every team there had a model that utilized mechanisms in different ways beyond what was intended. The entire event was a celebration of Johnson’s patterns of innovation! You can only imagine how this event would help students to continue to think “outside of the brick” on a regular basis.
But the event left me with fundamental questions to be wrestled with…
If non-school events like this help promote innovative thinking in children, how might we create similar events as part of school to promote the same goals?
Not all schools have Legos, but Legos shouldn’t be thought of as the essential ingredient to unlocking this kind of thinking. While materials and tools do create certain types of possibilities, it is the events (both large and small) that create opportunities. How might we create more opportunities for student innovation?
Images in this post, but not shown in the Image Credits section, are my own.