Using Inspiration to Aim Education Towards Innovation

On 23 November 2009, President Barack Obama announced the new Educate to Innovate program (full transcript). The program is an initiative to stimulate America’s students to develop skills and consider careers in science, engineering, technology, and innovation.

What’s exciting about this program is that it aims beyond merely demanding improvements in public test scores for math and science from school districts. Unlike the No Child Left Behind Act, which — in a nutshell — is legislation targeted at making schools show improved standardized testing scores, the Educate to Innovate program instead aims directly at inspiring students to learn.

The program also ties in participation and investment commitments from the nation’s businesses, in an attempt to provide initiatives beyond the boundaries of the class room:

Time Warner Cable is joining with the Coalition for Science After School and FIRST Robotics… to connect one million students with fun after-school activities, like robotics competitions. The MacArthur Foundation and industry leaders like Sony are launching a nationwide challenge to design compelling, freely available, science-related video games. And organizations representing teachers, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers – joined by volunteers in the community – are participating in a grassroots effort called “National Lab Day” to reach 10 million young people with hands-on learning.

Students will launch rockets, construct miniature windmills, and get their hands dirty. They’ll have the chance to build and create – and maybe destroy just a little bit … to see the promise of being the makers of things, and not just the consumers of things.

And the program doesn’t rely solely on the contributions of corporations; it also seeks to leverage the participation of teachers, science and technology professionals, and volunteers.

Of course, the players upon whose participation the program is counting are only part of the story. What’s additionally refreshing is the breadth of the approaches proposed to achieve the program’s goals. Academic competitions and after-school programs are fairly classic, but I’m rather pleased to see a proposal to create video games designed to catalyze the development of scientific skills — it speaks to an understanding of America’s youth communication culture. America’s young people aren’t engaged by slide shows and documentaries. They demand interactivity.

But interactivity isn’t all young people need. They also need role models. So the President also announced a new annual science fair at the White House, saying [emphasis mine]:

If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you’re a young person and you’ve produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we’re going to lead by example. We’re going to show young people how cool science can be.

And finally, I was pleased to hear that part of the initiative’s core goals is to attempt to broaden the appeal of science, math, and technology to populations that aren’t traditionally the most likely to pursue such studies:

Through these efforts … we’re going to expand opportunities for all our young people – including women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but who are no less capable of succeeding in math and science and pursuing careers that will help improve our lives and grow our economy.

Here’s a video of the President’s full speech (originally posted on the White House blog), which discusses additional pats of the initiative and offers several logistical details:

Additionally, here’s a video in which Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John P. Holdren answer questions about the “Educate to Innovate” initiative:

All in all, the initiative clearly has extremely ambitious goals.

And there are certainly a slew of improvements our educational system needs that this initiative simply doesn’t address, for while making a generation of critical-thinking, innovative, and technically-savvy Americans is a worthy goal for several reasons, the education system must also take care to prepare us for “everything else” in life, like health and nutrition, personal finance, and social and civic participation, just to name a few.

Even so, I’m terrifically heartened at the innovation and sensibility that’s demonstrably been applied towards defining the initiative’s fundamental methods. It speaks to an understanding and harnessing of lessons learned in recent years about the power of social participation to drive individual accomplishment.