Academics

Think

“Yes! I’ve been trying to figure this out forever!” Julia Novakoff shouts with a big grin across her face as if she just won the Boston Marathon. She admires the complex logic puzzle of various shapes and colors that she has just perfectly pieced together in the Dana Hall Think Tank before turning towards her friend, Stephanie Wolf, who stands next to her trying to “find Waldo” in an oversized Waldo picture hanging on the wall.

“Wow. Even I’m impressed,” Stephanie says with a laugh.

Solving complicated puzzles is no new task for these juniors, who come to the Dana Hall Think Tank two or three times a week. The Think Tank is a room full of everything from puzzles to old computers and software which students can freely come to dissect, study, tear apart, and put back together objects and puzzles in every form or fashion imaginable. From the outside, the Think Tank looks like a room where girls come to simply play with puzzles and smash apart old computers; however, its purpose and goals are much more meaningful than this.

In an age where students rely on formulas and calculators to solve complex problems, the Think Tank is a place that encourages creativity and innovation, where students think independently from standard equations and generic problem-solving methods taught in school to develop their own strategies for solving problems. The atmosphere of the room is relaxed, low stress, fun; the puzzles or problems may be complicated but there is no pressure. Academic Dean Nancy Rich, who originally introduced the Think Tank to Dana Hall, suggests that learning realistic problem-solving techniques in such a low pressure environment makes it easier and less stressful when, for example, solving a problem on tests in class. The key to success in solving many problems is using a hands-on approach, keeping an open mind, seeing all the pieces and learning to think on multiple levels “in a 3-D way, outside of the box.” Students find creative and innovative ways to solve problems, they see how things work in different ways from different perspectives; they learn to search out patterns and see how things fit together. Ms. Rich also points out that it’s “not just a [physical] problem that you hold in your hand, but a theoretical problem [too].”

Stephanie, who wants to be an engineer, and Julia are just two of the many girls who have been frequenting the Think Tank since they discovered it their freshman year. This year, they are also taking the Creative Problem Solving: Principles in Engineering class offered at Dana Hall. Like the Think Tank, the course encourages students to take a very hands-on, real-world approach to a wide variety of problems. Problems presented to students in the class vary from puzzles, to math problems, to creating and utilizing public opinion polls in order to create logos for a fictional bakery store in Wellesley.

“In the Creative Problem Solving class, nothing is set in stone, as in a standard math class. Certain topics have a theory, but maybe students don’t want to use that theory, [but] want to develop their own approach to a problem,” says Steve Kunec, the creator and teacher of the class, which is new to the Dana Hall curriculum this year.

“The history of the class is that we [at Dana] want more women to go into science, technology, engineering, [and other fields] related to mathematics,” he says. While math and science classes at Dana Hall are certainly challenging enough for students who want to become engineers, some larger, often coeducational, independent schools offer engineering courses. While it seems logical for Dana Hall to have an engineering course if the goal is to encourage more women to go into that specific field, Mr. Kunec points out that, “in order to have an effective engineering class, it’s important to have a class that teaches problem-solving skills because at the core of engineering is solving problems.”

“[The Creative Problem Solving Class] is really cool—the opposite of boring” explains Novakoff. Wolf adds, “it’s so gratifying when you finally come up with a solution [in class]. Because you came up with it yourself, nobody told you the solution and nobody told you how to do it.”

Ms. Rich points out that the Creative Problem Solving Class and the Think Tank are not just for girls thinking about engineering, but other problem-solving careers in fields like medicine, business, or politics, because the cooperation and skills that students learn can be applied to all aspects of life.

“It’s really important to be able to understand the world’s complex problems and to participate in solving them,” she says. Ms. Rich talks about poverty-stricken areas of the world with inadequate amounts of rainfall: is there a solution to getting clean water to the people living in those areas? Is it possible to take water from the ocean and desalinate it in an efficient way? This issue has plagued the world for as long as the human race has existed, and there are countless other critical problems in need of the help of creative individuals with problem-solving skills.

“The things in here [The Think Tank] make me see problems from different perspectives,” says Wolf.  “You have to be able to see patterns and how things work together in order to find solutions to the various puzzles and exercises,” she says  while rearranging different sized triangles into one collective triangle on the table in front of her.

Novakoff continues the thought, discussing her AP Bio class, where Dr. Doll asks students to create their own labs on various topics.

“People become dependent on formulas and numbers in their labs, but in that kind of situation, it is important to be able to find your own strategy. You have to be able to think of all the steps and various parts that you want to figure out and how to solve them.” Pausing to consider the connection, she adds, “that’s really the idea behind the Think Tank.”

But the idea behind the creation of the Think Tank stretches even further than this. Encouraging girls to think outside the box and develop the skills to solve issues in productive, innovative ways is a key element in Dana Hall’s mission.

While the Creative Problem Solving Class and Think Tank have a very specific focus, Ms. Rich points out that, “all of [Dana Hall’s] courses stretch girls’ minds to be creative and think outside the box. Every course from science, to visual arts and even athletics, when girls are trying to figure out what the best way to get around the opposing team and make a goal requires creative thinking.”

In a world plagued by a seemingly endless list of social, economic, and political challenges, creative thinkers are the key to the future. According to a study conducted by Davidson College, in North Carolina, women are proven to be more naturally creative thinkers than men; however, throughout history they have been an extremely underutilized resource. Even today, social and cultural forces often discourage females, particularly at a young age, from overcoming the “housewife” stereotypes and realizing their full potential as adults. For example, in the United States where females are 51% of the population, women occupy only 17% of the seats in the United States Congress. Only 11% of engineers in the United States are women. In 2011, 14.1% of Fortune 500 executive positions were held by women. Across the board, in almost every job in the United States, women make 77 cents for every dollar that men, in the same position, make.

Even so, when compared to other nations, women in the western hemisphere have it good. Recently, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl named Malala Yousufzai was shot for speaking out against the Taliban’s ban on women’s education. This specific crime received widespread international media attention, but it is not a unique situation. In a report by the Bureau of Justice, statistics showed that of the 652,660 violent crimes analyzed, more than 551,500 had been committed against women.

“Who better equipped to approach these problems on the world stage than women?” Ms. Rich asks. This is where Dana Hall’s Think Tank comes into the picture.  “Girls are creative, they are good problem solvers and they want to make the world a better place. They also work well collaboratively,” she says.

Today, Novakoff and Wolf are solving complex puzzles by thinking outside the box; tomorrow, they could be on the Senate floor pushing through a motion that will make the world a safer and better place not only for women, but for everyone.

Ms. Rich sums it up: “Girls are the future of the world. They have amazing skills that need to be nurtured and developed. Whatever we can do at [Dana Hall] to give them a good foundation in solving problems, the better for everyone.”

 by Lindsey Rasmussen