Kids invent solutions to practical problems

Graland middle schoolers compete in innovation expo

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Martin Twarogowski believes he has the best job in the world.

“That’s how much fun it is,” he said.

Twarogowski is the Charles C. Gates Director of Innovative Learning at Graland Country Day School. Each year, for nearly the entire academic year, Twarogowski works with middle schoolers on their Gates Invention Expo projects.

He gets to “witness the evolution of their projects, along with the evolution of their learning,” Twarogowski said. “I’ve seen the value of what the (Gates) program means to the students.”

Graland, 55 Clermont St., is a private school located in Denver’s Hilltop neighborhood. It serves preschoolers through eighth grade and draws students from across the metro area.

The Charles C. Gates Invention and Innovation Program is an elective at Graland, offered to fifth- through eighth graders. The program got its start by an endowment from Charles C. Gates and was established in 1999. This school year marks the 20th anniversary of the program’s Gates Invention Expo.

Working with a team of coaches comprised of Graland faculty, the program tasks students to solve a problem with a unique idea. The students then develop a prototype, which is then presented at the annual Gates Invention Expo, which took place this year on March 5, at Graland.

“Technology changes (and) people’s needs change,” Twarogowski said. “Our hope is that these kids find solutions for those needs.”

The Gates Program teaches students to solve problems for others, Twarogowski said, and to do that, they use a number of different skill sets. However, the main skills learned through the program, Twarogowski said, are empathy, critical thinking, creative thinking, collaboration, grit and perseverance, and experimentation.

This year, about 140 students participated in the Gates Invention Expo — some worked individually on a project, and others worked as part of a team of two or three.

On March 5, six competition judges — community members and industry professionals unknown to the students — judged the projects on functionality, creativity, marketability and clarity of communication. The judges selected 10-15 projects as finalists, and those students provided a second presentation to the judges in the morning on March 6. That afternoon, the judges made their selection for first, second and third-place winners for both a fifth-and-sixth-grade category and a seventh-and-eighth-grade category.

The judges also determine if any of the projects are patent-worthy, Twarogowski said. In the past 20 years, 24 students participating in the Gates Program at Graland have received U.S. patents for their inventions.

On March 6, the event included a presentation of a patent certificate to two former Graland students, James Cobb and Alex Kechriotis, who in 2016 developed a magnetic zipper, which was inspired by Parkinson’s patients.

John Jordan’s son Jack is a fifth-grader at Graland, and participated for the first time in the Gates Program. Jack Jordan created a cleaning robot to be more efficient and effective than what is currently available in the market.

“He really enjoyed it,” John Jordan said of his son’s experience in the Gates Program, “and he learned a lot.”

For example, John Jordan said, Jack learned how to think about a problem, tackle it and how to overcome roadblocks and challenges.

All of those are life skills, John Jordan said, and “all will come up a lot in life.”

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