We first met Louisa Ulrich-Verderber seven years ago. She was in her welding studio, passionately describing her plan for how she was going to change education—starting with her own. We were on YouTube. That’s because Louisa had submitted a video application for EF’s Global Citizen Scholarship, which she ultimately won and used toward a travel experience at one of our Global Leadership Summits.
There is a lot to know about Louisa, so here’s the CliffsNotes version: She learned to weld at age 12. She sees colors when she listens to music. And at 22 years young, she became the sole patent holder and inventor of the Undula Generator, a wind turbine that’s inspired by the locomotion of a cuttlefish. These days, Louisa continues to pursue her many passions: sculpture, STEM subjects, seeing as much of the world as she can, and sharing her inimitable perspective with others.
We were enraptured with Louisa and her take on innovation in education way back when, and after catching up with the artist and engineer several years out from her EF tour, it’s safe to say we’re still card-carrying members of her fan club. Keep reading for Louisa’s thoughts on staying curious, synesthesia, and why failure isn’t what you think it is.
Left: Louisa with friends on an EF tour in London. Right: Louisa posing with a larger-than-life metal sculpture she built at age 16.
EF: You champion the importance of making unlikely connections in learning and in life. How do you stay curious and keep yourself open to making these types of connections?
Louisa Ulrich-Verderber: The day I thought of the wind turbine idea, I was in AP Biology doodling in a notebook. I had recently watched a nature documentary, and it just popped into my head. It’s almost an artistic process where you don’t know when the next piece of inspiration will come. You just have to let it hit you, and something will connect, and you’ll have a little light bulb moment.
I think it takes open-mindedness and a little bit of discipline to never discount a piece of information, because you never know how it’s going to be useful.
A look inside Louisa’s studio
We visited with the Vermont native to talk more about unlikely connections and staying open to inspiration–in all its forms.
You’ve written and spoken about your condition, synesthesia, extensively. How did you get used to sharing your perspective knowing it might be different than other people’s?
People just thought it was an odd quirk about me that I would say, “I like the way this song looks” or, “I prefer Lady Gaga to Maroon 5 because her songs look better.” I can imagine it being strange to someone who doesn’t have it, that a violin is orange. A violin is orange, by the way.
I find it a small but enriching part of my life where I don’t get to just listen to Mozart, I also get to see a live show when I listen to Mozart. I think it makes me look deeper into something we might take for granted. I look at people’s perspectives differently.
Someone else may see the world completely different than I see it, not just in a physical sense—where they have synesthesia—but from a sense of life experience and their own perspective that might be completely different than my own. I have to respect and accept that. Also, I think synesthesia is fun. I get to have extra senses. It’s like a little superpower.
The neurological phenomenon that pairs two or more senses in 4% of people. Because the normal pathways of the five senses are intertwined, a synesthete might not just hear your voice—they may also see it, taste it, or feel it.
What guidance would you give teachers looking to foster an environment that celebrates experimentation and innovation in education?
For an educator, it’s important to be a floating mentor. It’s a mix of standing back and then stepping forward when you know you can intervene and really improve what your student is doing. A nudge here, a word of encouragement there, some tough love here, but also stepping back and letting them shine. It may seem odd, but I think it can really give that student a lot of pride in their work, and also make them feel like you respect and trust them with a lot of responsibility.
I think it takes open-mindedness and a little bit of discipline to never discount a piece of information.
How did you get comfortable with failing on your path to finding solutions?
My art gave me a really good foundation for that. It was a time in my life where I could fail and experiment and learn and not have to feel ashamed of failing. I learned that life is full of happy accidents. If I messed up a sculpture, I would say, “Okay, it’s a happy accident. What can I turn this lump of metal into now?”
In one of the [Harry Potter] books, there’s a line, “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” The fear of the word failure breeds this deep fear of the idea of failure. I don’t think we should be afraid of it at all. We should think of it as an opportunity or a mistake or just a stumbling block that lets you run a little faster, and go a little farther, and be a little stronger the next time you try and do something.
Louisa meeting her idol, Sir Ken Robinson, at our Global Leadership Summit in Switzerland in 2015.
Kim is a senior copywriter at EF. In a past life, she wrote about everything from online poker to deodorant. (She likes writing about educational travel better.) When not at work, you can most likely find Kim on the internet or eating cheese.