Folan: Harnessing your own creativity

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To begin this school year, the Catholic Memorial community read “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” and welcomed its author, William Kamkwamba. The memoir tells the story of a schoolboy who overcame adversity to build a windmill to generate electricity for his village in Malawi, Africa.

Kamkwamba’s story vividly illustrates how a boy’s determination, imagination, ingenuity, and faith overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Her journey reminds us how important an adaptive mindset and unwavering determination can be.

Guided by a library book and the ability to learn from failure, Kamkwamba created a windmill from a bicycle, dynamo, and parts he found and fitted in a junkyard. Guided by curiosity, he applied the science and engineering he had read to create a game-changing adaptation that changed his life and his community forever.

At CM, Kamkwamba challenged our students to seek solutions to real problems, harnessing their own creativity and engaging in the iterative design process. He also challenged them to explore the world, take things apart, build prototypes and research their “why”.

During his visit, he reviewed the design of the boats the students built for the Charles River. He helped seventh graders build gliders to float in a wind tunnel. He tested and examined Tesla coils built by eighth graders and their cardboard cars designed to carry pennies. He praised our faculty for bringing the concepts of buoyancy, electromagnetism, flight and force dynamics to life through our project-based learning program. Kamkwamba shared with our students that hands-on constructivist learning teaches you to fail quickly, to value teamwork, embrace creativity, and gain real courage. All the skills Kamkwamba believed needed to be successful in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Kamkwamba’s visit also highlighted and brought to light many pressing global issues. Yet he urged local action as a path to global transformation. This confirmed the efforts of our students and the 16,000 hours of local service they perform each year. By studying Dorothy Day, Oscar Romero, and Mother Theresa, our students learn to embrace the poor, learn about social injustices, and stand up for those who have no voice. By applying a design mindset to service, we ask our boys to begin their efforts by thinking about the end goal. The purpose for which they design is a world in which suffering is alleviated and where equality, peace and justice flourish.

A passage from the gospel of Luke 12:48 is often referred to at the Catholic Memorial as a reminder of our why, “to whom much has been given, much will be asked; and of the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked. Inventors like Kamkwamba remind us how important it is to develop a broad vision in our students to understand the complexities of a global world. He also affirmed our belief in cultivating the hearts and minds of our students, so that they are motivated to seek solutions to alleviate human suffering.

We must never forget that we have a moral obligation to seek solutions to the complex problems facing our world. We must also aspire to train people who have a well-developed moral compass and a commitment to stand up for the marginalized.

Achieving these goals requires an integrated, project-based curriculum that encourages the kind of thinking Kamkwamba espoused. Students must learn to apply their knowledge in all disciplines and to think broadly. Project-based learning and constructivist activities provide students with the opportunity to think critically, take initiative, embrace creativity, appreciate cultural differences, and learn to overcome adversity. This is how we can inform and transform a generation of students who have the skills and compassionate hearts to create the solutions our world needs.


Dr Peter F. Folan is the chairman of the Catholic Memorial in West Roxbury.


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