Recently I was privileged to attend the Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Awards (http://conradawards.org/) at Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA. The program encourages teams of high school students to address specific problems in the categories of Aerospace Exploration, Clean Energy and Cyber Security. The students then pitch their innovations and their business plans to judges, with the winning team in each category receiving a \$5000 grant to fund their project development.
Passion and Legitimacy
One of my favorite speakers was Nick Tarascio, CEO of AirEast Airways. He stirred up the students (and particularly the teachers!) by suggesting that maybe college was not just unnecessary to accomplish their dreams, but actually (with the debt burden frequently incurred) could stand in the way of their dreams. Was there a better way to learn and to succeed?
Nick’s argument was that fundamentally passion is what gives you legitimacy. There’s no shortage of work, just a shortage of people to pay you. Are you interested in an industry or a subject? Stop waiting for a job, go and offer to add value. You can have conversations with the greatest minds in history by reading books. He talked about his involvement in projects like www.skillshare.com where anyone can come and learn – if they want to – and Couchsurfing University, which intentionally networks an already curious population and tells them to come live with those who do what they want to learn. Being surrounded by the people who are talented and driven and know how to LEARN is most valuable thing, Nick emphasized to these students.
We believe in you and bring you here so you can learn how you learn.
What a great way for NASA (along with many of the other partners for the event) to say: not ‘let us teach you something’ but ‘let us show you how to be a learner.’
I wonder what NASA could look like if this was the case – if we made a way that those who wanted to learn could come and do so. Professional degrees are obviously necessary for people in certain fields. But what would happen at NASA if we invested in those with the right motivation and the right passion – instead of just the right degree? What would change about the level of engagement of our own workforce - not even talking about the public! Who could come contribute toward the vision for space exploration who might otherwise have too many barriers in front of them?
Open Innovation as Education Outreach
What’s particularly special about the Innovation Summit is the organization’s vision to offer something truly different. They are committed to transform the high school experience by combining innovation, entrepreneurship, and education. The Spirit of Innovation Awards program invites students to think differently and create real, innovative products to solve real problems.
On a recent visit to IDEO in Palo Alto, CA, we looked at their new open innovation site: www.openideo.com. All creative thinkers are invited to sign on and participate in addressing real challenges. These challenges, like how can we better manage human waste in low-income urban communities? How can we better connect food production and consumption? How can we raise kids’ awareness of fresh food so they can make better choices?, aren’t questions that need Ph.Ds – just passion, and curiosity, and creative thinking.
I started to think about how often in my education experience we are making up problems for students to think about, rather than giving them real problems. NASA has taken incredible strides with open innovation, crowdsourcing some of our biggest problems to citizen scientists. Couldn’t we extend our practice of open innovation to E&O too? NASA’s questions aren’t only technical aerospace issues. Technology could free us to create a forum for two-way discussion. They may not be able to answer questions like how to create radiation shielding for certain spacecraft designs (or maybe they could!) But these students could certainly make incredible contributions toward real questions about engagement and awareness and direction of exploration.
Do we do this at NASA – truly incentivize creating products that solve real problems? Do we think of education outreach as just content – or as method too? Maybe what NASA should be teaching is not content so much as it is inviting students to creative problem solving. OpenIDEO is the place where ‘people design better, together.’ What if NASA was the place where ‘people explore better, together’?
President Obama recently emphasized how the US needs to be committed to STEM education to get past this recession. “We want to start making Science cool. I want people to feel about the next big energy breakthrough and the next big Internet breakthrough the same way they felt about the moonwalk,” he said.
“There’s so many problems, we’re not running out of problems,” Foundation director Nancy Conrad said, emphasizing that you need to get kids excited about Science, Math and Technology in order build a viable workforce. “When you’ve got juiced kids who really want to do something, they don’t know there’s a box. And then all they do is think outside the box. This is where geeks turn into rockstars, and that’s the game changer. That’s where you can change the culture of students.”
What do you think? Have we thought about how to turn geeks into rockstars? About how to make room for the ones who really want to do something?