An Unlikely Assessment Tool

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Decked out in my duct tape bracelet and Camp Invention t-shirt, I blend into the invention playfield and disappear on the sidelines of the Camp Invention program room. As a Senior Creative Content Specialist for Invent Now, Inc., I spend a great deal of time traveling around the country to Camp Invention sites, observing certified teachers pilot the programs that my team and I cook up. (Our recipe: pour creativity, innovation, STEM, design and entrepreneurship into a pot of invention and allow to simmer).

In the out-of-school time (OST) programming field, we have many different tools and techniques that allow us to assess and evaluate our programs both informally and formally. One of the lenses through which we often look, is the lens of engagement.

Engagement can be described as the degree to which, as well as the ways in which, a person is mentally, physically and/or socially involved in an activity. As a program designer, the types of questions that cross my mind as I am looking for signs of engagement are: "Do the participants seem to be genuinely interested in what they are doing, what is the energy level in the room, what types of questions, comments, and reflections are arising, and are the participants extracting meaning?"

I can often gain insights around engagement through a child's Inventor's Log. In the true spirit of inventors who may wish to pursue patents, the children sketch their ideas and write detailed notes about their prototypes. The Inventor's Logs sometimes serve as diaries for participants' deepest, innermost invention thoughts (or a place to sketch what a two-headed bunny with robotic feet might look like).

"I have tried to coomaperate [sic] with these boys... but what about the weight of the crust. I don't think I can hold the secret anymore [sic]." writes one young girl in her Inventor's Log. As she was navigating the turbulent waters of 21st century skill development (e.g., teamwork, communication, and collaboration), making a Log entry gave this child the opportunity to process her experience. She was ultimately successful in conveying her ideas and shaping her team's solution to the global challenge (building underground houses to address living space issues in Singapore) on which they were working.

Engagement sometimes appears as joyful laughter in reaction to rubber ducks being launched from steam-punk-stylized catapults, but it can also reveal itself through these types of subtle, self-confidence building transitions.

Last summer, I came upon the ideal benchmark for program engagement. I had never actually seen this particular indicator used on any assessment tool, but it immediately answered all of my program piloting questions with an affirmative, "Yes, he or she is deeply involved in this activity and is drawing meaning from it."

A group of children were designing motor-powered vehicles that could morph to function on land, in the air and under water. There was one particular child who was fervently building his vehicle while doing an intense version of the potty dance (think Richard Simmons meets John Travolta). When approached to ask if he needed a quick break from building, he replied with a definitive "No, I can't stop..." and proceeded to share, "...this is my best day."

To a program designer's ear, these words are akin to National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee Don Keck's eureka moment of witnessing light speed through optical fibers with very little loss along the way -- a moment he captured in his "Inventor's Log" by writing the word, "Whoopee!" (You may be familiar with one of the systems this invention makes possible, the Internet.)

Abraham Maslow, the psychologist who identified the hierarchy of fulfilling innate human needs in priority order, and I both agree that pushing off the caretaking of one's primary needs is a fairly good indicator of the power of engagement. The state that this child was in may be considered flow, a concept described by psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi (known to his colleagues as "Smith"). Flow is the state where one is so deeply immersed in what he or she is doing that all sense of time seems to fade away. Tennis pro Serena Williams might refer to this state as being "in the zone," while experience designers simply refer to it as #success.

As we head into the zone of developing invention-based programs to pilot in 2014, I will inevitably be aiming to design activities that are primed to invite the state of flow, invoke powerful reflections, and ultimately, lend themselves to "the dance."