I left INNOTECH to migrate, but INNOTECH never left me

I left INNOTECH to migrate, but INNOTECH never left me

Zenaida Napa-Natividad

“INNOTECH introduced me to a whole new thought paradigm relative to solving problems in the SEAMEO region and to this day, guides me in developing innovative educational solutions to regional problems in Guam and Micronesia.


On August 23, 2018, at about 1:00 am in the Midwest, I was jolted by that all-too-familiar Messenger alert tone. I was in Kansas City attending a meeting as Guam’s representative to the national conference on State Longitudinal Data Systems. Little did I know that little message would reconnect me to a previous life that I treasure, that special chapter of my life at SEAMEO INNOTECH. This organization holds a special place in my heart because working at INNOTECH introduced me to a whole new thought paradigm relative to solving problems in the SEAMEO region and to this day, guides me in developing innovative educational solutions to regional problems in Guam and Micronesia. 

I left INNOTECH when I migrated to the US in 1991, but INNOTECH never left me.  

I learned about INNOTECH back in 1988 when I visited a friend at the then Institute of Science and Mathematics Education (ISMEDof the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman and saw a job announcement for an Associate Specialist. I applied and soon got hired. I was attracted by the Center’s raison d’etre  innovation in education. I was a fresh UP PhD graduate. My dissertation was on education innovation, particularly on the effect of using Logo programming (developed by Seymour Papert and Jean Piaget who founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Laboratory) on children’s problem solving and critical thinking skills. It was 1985 and only the Ateneo de Manila University had a computer laboratory at the primary level where children as young as eight learned Logo programming language, a dialect of Lisp which is used to develop simulations in mathematics, robotics, telecommunications, and science. INNOTECH was the best place to put my doctoral education to good use. I was not disappointed.  

So in 1988, I was appointed as the youngest PhD Associate Specialist of the Center within the Training Division headed by Dr. Pacita Habana. The training programs then were different. Training at INNOTECH would mean residing at the Center dormitory for as long as the courses ran for six, three, or two months. In addition, each member country could send at most five participants. Furthermore, the long-term trainings were personally costly for the participants as overseas calls were cost-prohibitive and there were no cellular phone services or social media that we have now. Hence, I offered an innovative solution: Why not conduct in-country training? INNOTECH professional staff would travel to and hold the training in the member country. That way, education officials do not need to be away from their worksite for months and more would benefit from the training instead of three to five selected country representative.

The first one of such in-country training was a contract that I successfully secured for INNOTECH with the Brunei Ministry of Education. Dr. Habana and I travelled to Brunei Darussalam to conduct the in-country training among 30 high- and middle-level education officials on problem analysis and developing innovative education solutions to identified problems. We were treated like royalty by the Ministry officials who took the time to give us a tour of this majestic kingdom. I was awed by the palaces owned by the Sultan of Brunei and his wife, the rich carpentry and furniture in the homes of the education officials who offered sumptuous dinners, the water houses in Kampong Ayer and Seri Begawan, and the tour to the oil fields that make the Sultan of Brunei one of the wealthiest men in the world.

My most memorable experience at INNOTECH was when all the professional staff of the Training Division travelled to SEAMEO member countries in December 1988. That was my very first trip to Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and Brunei Darussalam. It was a peak experience because it helped me capture and embrace the context, culture, and characteristics of each member country that created an impact on how I related with the training participants and how I delivered each training session. I sought to learn common salutations and still remember the phrases selamat datangkop khun kapterima kasih, apa kabar, selamat pagiIt was important to understand what each participant brought to the training.     

INNOTECH introduced me to a whole new thought paradigm with which to analyze differences and commonalities among SEAMEO member countries and develop innovative educational solutions to regional problems. This thought paradigm stayed with me. As Guam’s Liaison to the U.S. Department of Education National Forum on Education Statistics where we set the nation’s agenda and blaze new trails in education data collection, analysis, and data visualization, my contributions to the discussions are creative and innovative. 

Such thought process became my jumping board to be a national and international conference speaker, presenting fresh and out of the box solutions to education problems in Washington DC, Miami, New York, as well as Belgium, UK. I also have been involved as contributor to several publications of the Forum on education data collection and analysis for use by state and local education agencies across the United States. These publications are available online for international use.

In 2008, I was asked to write a grant that would fund a project to address the high childhood obesity prevalence in Guam. The scope of the problem was huge and we needed an effective solution that addresses not the symptoms but the root of the problem. An INNOTECH-like out of the box solution dawned on me. Change the marketing behavior of parents and change the built environment! For these ideas, I succeeded in obtaining a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for a project that we dubbed the Sustantia” project. The project was so successful that I was invited to speak first at the CNN Center in Atlanta, and where one of the conference participants eventually invited me to present at the 20th European Childhood Obesity Group Conference in Brussels, Belgium among childhood obesity scientists and researchers across Europe. This presentation in Belgium attracted several invitations for me to present in other European countries. 

In 2020, I obtained a $3.25 million grant from the U.S. Department for the establishment of the first ever Guam State Longitudinal Data System that we locally dubbed as the Guam One Stop Data Village aimed at linking of the K to 12 student information system with postsecondary information system, thus enabling the tracking of students fr0m kinder all the way to college, and opening wide many research and policy issues that were not possible to explore before.

Innovation and change will always be my life’s tenets. When I heard about the bifurcation of visitor accommodation concept, from hotel accommodation to private house space-sharing (such as Airbnb), I had to try it myself. But instead of welcoming guests inside my home, I introduced an innovation to the bifurcation: I built a modern nipa around and under a super huge mango tree, and complete with wi-fi connection, memory foam bed, air condition, mini refrigerator, microwave, laundry area, and open sky shower, offering it as one of the accommodation options in Airbnb. The idea of living around the trunk of a huge mango tree is enough story to tell back home. Within barely four months in operation I became an Airbnb Superhost and just like the old times at INNOTECH, I welcome visitors from different countries such as for tourists visiting Guam from Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Russia, Netherlands, Australia, India, the US, the Philippines, etc. By embracing this innovative style of accommodation, my world expanded from the 11 SEAMEO member states to countries from all corners of the world.   

I have no doubt that the same INNOTECH multiplier effect applies to the countless SEAMEO educators, as it does to me, who have come and gone the halls of this highly respected institution in Southeast Asia.  

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