The relatively new field of innovation education integrates innovative thought into formal education structures.

It has emerged as a tool to enhance education while unlocking children’s potential as innovators and influencers. Innovation workshops that encourage critical thinking – based in and around science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) and conducted within education spaces or innovation labs – provide children of all backgrounds a safe haven to learn through making, tinkering and modeling.

“I believe in innovation, if we all can be innovators we can make the world a better place. It doesn’t matter if you are from Africa, or how old you are. It is a matter of what you can do to make the world a better place.” — Kelvin Doe, age 17

These innovation labs and the activities that take place within them promote both educational growth and cognitive learning. In support of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the innovation labs promote the right to a quality education for all children, regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic status, by providing high-quality, effective educational programmes.

While there is a debate as to what constitutes a “quality education,” there is consensus on two key elements: cognitive development and “creative and emotional development, in supporting objectives of peace, citizenship and security, in promoting equality and in passing global and local cultural values down to future generations” (UNESCO, Education for All Global Monitoring Report, 2005, p. 29). Innovation labs provide both elements through enriching educational experiences.

Constant re-evaluation of one’s environment and consistent active learning, two main pillars of the innovation Iabs’ curriculum, have been found to promote cognitive development. As a supplement to traditional schooling, the innovation labs promote new ways to approaching problems by blending traditional education with innovative critical thought. Mentorship and guidance by innovation lab educators encourage emotional development in ways that support the objectives of peace, citizenship and security. Educators are taught to lead and not lecture, to let students take an active role in learning, and to prepare for students’ mistakes rather than try to prevent them.

Sierra Leone has some of the world’s lowest youth literacy rates. To improve low education metrics, spaces such as the innovation lab at the Prince of Wales School in Freetown are helping to increase productive time spent within educational environments for young girls and boys and, in particular, focusing on flexible learning.

Within the context of the innovation lab, flexible learning involves integrating critical thinking, assessing student’s relative environment and community and promoting students’ creative prowess. Mentors take these ideas into account when designing and implementing curricula. All activities aim to encourage youth to explore creative thinking, accessible by various learning pathways, in the hope that students will leave the innovation labs with the competencies, skills, and confidence to apply their learning to an everyday setting. Since the lab has opened, we have seen students dedicate their time to creating windmill generators, book bags that harness solar energy and shoes that can power small electric devices.

While there is still much to be learned, students’ perspectives on their community and their ability to help others are shifting in a positive light. Many students’ stories illustrate this.

“As the days run we have built some things in the lab, but what we all need is great help … to create is not all about building things but thinking and gradually creating things. So let us note that the lab is playing a great role in our talent and life … remember that every one of us has a talent” — Francis Lebbie, age 15

Take the case of Kadija Daramy, age 16. Before being introduced to innovation workshops, Kadija was very reserved, quiet and lacked confidence in herself. Through tinkering, making, and modeling, she created an electric well crank. More importantly, she gained confidence that she could create change in her community and fully embraced the impact that innovation can have on personal growth. She now actively engages her peers in critical thinking exercises to create a platform through which other young adults can gain confidence in themselves. Her first innovation workshop, just a year ago, was a transformational experience; she now calls herself the ‘female Einstein’.

Innovation workshops and labs are effective solutions for unlocking children’s potential as innovators. There is still much to be learned, but it is encouraging to hear students’ stories from the labs and to see how they are positively influencing their peers.