Creative minds

In March, Jeffrey Saxon left an accomplished career in private industry to help prepare the next generation of business leaders for success.

Saxon is the new president and CEO of Camp Invention, a program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame that runs 388 camps in 34 states for children in grades two to six.

Students who attend the camps are taught how to develop critical thinking skills, which, it is hoped, will aid them in every aspect of their lives and prepare them for a higher level of success in business. Saxon, who has held the positions of executive vice president and corporate officer for LTV Corp., and group vice president, specialty plastics, for BFGoodrich Co., says there are many similarities between fostering creativity in a classroom and in a workplace.

But right now, he’s content working with children.

“It’s pretty easy to get motivated about marketing a program like this as opposed to plastic or steel parts,” he says.

From your experience with adult workers, which applications transferred most easily to the programs and methods you’ve implemented at Camp Invention?

We work very hard at Camp Invention to create an environment that fosters creativity and critical thinking skills. Part of the way to do that is that the culture has to be conducive to that.

In these classroom settings that we have, we create an immersion for the students. For example, one of our modules is called the Ancient Pueblos. In that module, we recreate the environment of the Native American Indians from 1,000 years ago. They were the first North American inventors.

It’s so different from a normal classroom setting where there’s rigidity. Not that it’s necessarily right or wrong for a classroom setting, but it’s definitely not right for an environment that fosters creativity. You want to be out of the box. You want them (the students) to feel as if there’s not a wrong answer; you’re not looking for an outcomes-based kind of approach.

In business, many parts of an organization will strive to do things the same way (as their competition), yet do them a little bit better. That’s not a bad business model. But if you want to create an environment that fosters creativity, you have to get out of that box.

You can’t just be looking for incrementalism. You need to be going for the big idea and thinking blue sky. You need to set a culture or an environment where that kind of thinking is encouraged.

One of the business buzzwords that is germane here is the term empowerment. That’s what we’re doing with the students in the camp, we’re empowering them. You take the ball and run with it. You figure this out. That’s such a stark change for them from the normal classroom.

Can the process of creative thinking be taught to adults who are already entrenched in their jobs and set ways of doing things?

The answer is clearly yes. There are creativity and critical thinking seminars and there are consultants that will come into your business.

They all have different methodologies, but they’re mostly based on academic research that’s been done on what drives creativity. How do you develop critical thinking skills?

Which of the skills learned at Camp Invention are thought to help people later succeed in business?

In the traditional school setting — and I’m not trying to diminish the teaching of the basics because it’s very important — there’s reading, writing and arithmetic, science, history and social science. They are things that you have to learn. You have to learn that two and two equals four.

But if you think about a business person, a business person is not just dealing with facts all of the time. You’re being hit with some things that are facts and some things that are perception. You have to be able to synthesize all of those things.

It’s widely recognized that there are different levels of knowledge and thinking skills. The lowest level of the thinking process is base knowledge. The highest level is synthesis and evaluation. The highest skill level is knowing what to do with all of that knowledge.

How do you put that together? How do you invent something? How do you create a business plan? You’re taking disparate pieces of data and perception and intuition and solving a problem with it. That’s basically the concept of what we’re trying to foster in our program. Many liberal arts schools say their purpose is to teach students how to think. We’re trying to do that at a much earlier age.

We’re also teaching social interaction. I think back to my education, and I went all the way through (grade school, high school and college) without hardly ever collaborating with anybody. When you think about success in business, there aren’t many lone rangers out there.

You’re almost always working with somebody else. You’ve got to make decisions as a team. That’s another element of setting up a culture for creativity to happen. You’ve got those disparate people on that team, and everybody’s looking at it differently.

Give an example of an invention that is used in your curriculum and why it was chosen.

There are a couple of things that we’re trying to weave into the programming. Every year, we revise which inventors and which inventions we talk about to keep it fresh.

We have several objectives for the kinds of inventions that we talk about. We try to bring the element of diversity into the decision. It is widely believed that inventions, historically, have all been made by white males. We blend in white male, African American and female inventors, so that we’re giving a balanced view. And believe me, there’s plenty of fertile ground to pick from.

For example, one of the inventors that we’re featuring this year is Stephanie Kwolek, a retired scientist from DuPont, who invented Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests, an extremely hard polymer. Here’s an example of a woman who made an important contribution to society.

How to reach: National Inventors Hall of Fame, (330) 762-4463
Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.