InnoWorks Headquarters

Message from the Founder: William L. Hwang

Every fire starts with a small spark.

In December 2002, during the winter break of my freshman year in college, I was organizing everything I had accumulated during grade school, when I stumbled upon a lot of old, fond memories from summer programs I had attended. As I flipped through scrapbook after scrapbook, I realized the true impact that many of these programs had on me. From the Hands on Science program in elementary school to the Research Science Institute (RSI) at MIT in high school, these summer programs largely shaped my goals and interests. I was really lucky to have had the chance to attend such programs, and I wondered how different I would be if I had not participated in the Blair Magnet Program or the RSI. These special programs, born from someone's imagination and hard work, changed, reshaped, and influenced me in amazing ways. They helped me focus and reorient my priorities; they opened my eyes to new and exciting possibilities. With a smile, I saluted them in my mind.

Just then, a yearbook note from a close track teammate caught my eye. He was one of the most hard-working and genuine individuals I knew, but because he hung out with the wrong crowd, he was held back several years and was on parole throughout high school. He had few role models and even fewer opportunities; thinking of him suddenly sparked in me a burning desire to do something—something to help others who might be lacking the same opportunities. I decided right then that I needed to devote myself to something that could bring opportunities like the ones I had to underprivileged children who needed it the most.

InnoWorks was born.

A key decision from the get-go was that everyone in the organization would be a volunteer; we would do it because we care. This to me was a necessity to foster the true spirit of volunteerism. Also, programs would have to be entirely free of charge for the InnoWorks students, covering the cost of equipment, food, books, T-shirts, awards, and transportation. If a student wanted to participate, we wanted nothing to stand in his or her way.

I knew two people I could always count on – my parents. They have been volunteering in the community for nearly 20 years now, and I turned to them for advice on how to proceed. As we started looking for the financial and in-kind sources that would be necessary to implement such a program, we quickly ran into a roadblock. Most corporate sponsors would not even consider us if we did not have non-profit status.

It was daunting for a student, but with the guidance of incredible volunteers like Mrs. Li-Min Lee, CPA, we successfully became an official 501(c)(3) non-profit organization—United InnoWorks Academy, Inc. on January 15, 2004.

The program was named “InnoWorks” as a reflection of the program’s structure – Innovative Workshops. With the help and support from passionate volunteers like Matthew Mian, Daniel Kaplan, Vineet Agrawal, Jessica Manson, Paul Klenk, and our first advisor Professor Gary Ybarra, we successfully launched our inaugural program, InnoWorks 2004: RoboVentions”. We partnered with the Montgomery County Department of Recreation leaders, including Billie Wilson, Cindy Cheamitru, and Mark Galiano. Most of our students came from the local community and others were nominated from local schools.

Since then, we have conducted 23 highly lauded programs across the country and internationally. The first international chapter was established in 2007. We have written six books, preparing two more, and are constantly analyzing and finding ways to improve our standards of success, which range from the specific gains of each student to the scope of our community outreach.

We measure student gains by interest, enthusiasm, and skill development in science and engineering, using pre- and post-program surveys, as well as a series of reflective questions students answer after each program activity (known to them as “missions”). The questions are designed to encourage metacognition, spark synthesis and extension of the knowledge they have gained, and provide indications of improvements in their higher-order analytical skills. Furthermore, all mentors write journal entries and hold daily discussions that are compiled into reports documenting their experiences, including the efficacy of various mentoring techniques they used.

For example, in the 2005 “Making Sense of Senses” programs, over 94% of the sixty students that completed both surveys wanted to participate in InnoWorks again. Fifty-five out of sixty students indicated that the InnoWorks program helped them to better understand science.

UIA is a grass-roots organization whose success comes from the InnoWorks chapters that implement programs and interact with local students, communities, and host institutions. With only 17 volunteer staff and 34 students in 2004, InnoWorks has now benefited from the contributions of over 800 volunteers, nurturing well over 1,500 underserved students. To ensure quality and efficiency as InnoWorks expands, each InnoWorks modular, scalable, and portable curriculum is painstakingly recorded to benefit all chapters.

InnoWorks is a robust, global community. The excitement and passion from students, volunteers, local leaders, universities and sponsors continues to grow for the betterment of their communities and our society.

InnoWorks is dynamic, self-perpetuating, growing, and thriving as a result of the enthusiasm of an ever-increasing number of community-minded student-volunteers. The first wave of InnoWorkers is now entering high-school; many will become junior InnoWorks mentors. When, not if, they go to college, they will be mentoring the next wave of InnoWorkers.

Generations of students nurturing the next; this is as it should be — “By Students, For Students.”

InnoWorks Today and in the Future

InnoWorks has made great progress in achieving its mission.

InnoWorks has been profiled by CBS, NBC, ABC, the Herald Sun, Maryland Gazette, and many other media organizations (see the Media tab). The students were excited about the program and the questions they were exploring and we believe that many will bring their renewed curiosity with them when they return to school. We aim to continue our contact with students by two primary means: (1) organized events on campus arranged by each chapter (e.g., interesting science and engineering competitions, presentations, and poster sessions), and (2) a web forum through which students can communicate with each other, their mentors, and other staff members, allowing the students to ask questions whenever they need advice or help in academics and otherwise.

We look forward to expanding InnoWorks to the national and international level in the coming years. With fifteen international chapters established or under development, we continue to receive interest from universities across the United States and as far as India, Bulgaria, the Philippines, France, and England.

We have already produced high-quality published materials describing the program structure, division of labor, educational research, pedagogical methods, activities, and missions. Future plans include: (1) development of “ready-to-go” kits for the activities and missions, (2) improved training materials (e.g., video demonstrations), (3) creation of new curricula (e.g., “Explorations” theme currently under development), (4) integrating InnoWorks into service-learning, K-12 education, and/or community outreach offices in universities, and (5) establishment of service-learning courses for mentor training and perhaps teaching credit for mentors.

With our anticipated growth, an InnoWorks Headquarters is essential in improving quality and support for all chapters, negotiating for and managing organization-wide efforts including pioneering new pedagogical initiatives and curricula, providing infrastructure for resource and equipment development and management, and creating a central organizational identity. The responsibilities of the InnoWorks Headquarters office will include: (1) responding to queries for new chapters by sending guidelines and evaluating proposals, (2) disseminating program and training materials such as books, equipment, and training videos, (3) developing and conducting the annual International Mentor and Staff Training Summit, including a significant online component for efficiency, (4) compiling an international newsletter to keep all chapters in communication, (5) making site visits, (6) overseeing development and compilation of new curricula that will be performed at both the local, national, and international level, (7) developing and evaluating the program, and (8) obtaining funding to support local chapters.

Local chapters will be responsible for: (1) communicating with the international staff on needs and progress, (2) writing proposals and raising necessary funding at the local level, (3) recruiting and organizing the staff and mentors to run their program, (4) obtaining and transporting students to and from the program, (5) working with local schools, (6) arranging for the necessary facilities and equipment that cannot be provided by the InnoWorks organization, and (7) developing portions of new curricula that will be synthesized at the international level.

InnoWorks represents a new paradigm in grade-school science-education and outreach. A key innovation of the program is the use of undergraduate student volunteers as mentors, lessening the gap in both lifestyle and age between mentors and students and promoting a collaborative working environment. A second key idea is the explicit incorporation of the best theories in the educational research literature to guide the overall structure and purpose of the learning environment. These two elements, combined with the strength of the program materials and the dedication of the staff, give credence to the idea that the InnoWorks model may be able to inject enthusiasm into learning and complement science and engineering education throughout the country. The United States is not producing enough scientists and engineers, and many of those who are not in scientific disciplines are uninterested in, distrusting of, or downright hostile towards science and the scientific method. A number of studies suggest that a key turning point for interest in science occurs in elementary school, and that impressions and biases formed this early in life can often carry over through the rest of grade school, college, and beyond. The InnoWorks program, though currently modest in scope, can help to increase scientific interest among our grade-school kids and ultimately build a broader base of support among the general public for scientific research and thinking.

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