Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Mother of All Inventions

Minds on fire. That's what we need in the US. The kids who rip into math and science, who chew it up and turn it into silk. We must find them and cultivate them.

How to Fire Up U.S. Innovation

We need more hands-on tech education for American children, but we also need to keep attracting the best talent from abroad.

Whether it's the latest tablet computer, electric sports car or other cool new product, Americans get very excited about innovation—and more often than not these innovations are brought to market by engineers working in technology hubs like Silicon Valley.

An innovation engine has many moving parts and all of them have to mesh properly for the engine to run smoothly. In Silicon Valley, and elsewhere in the United States, the engine requires sources of trained professionals (engineers, scientists, business people), sources of capital (venture capitalists, fluid stock markets), and new and existing companies that form a mutually reinforcing ecosystem.

Universities such as Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and San Jose State supply a continuous flow of trained talent. Venture capital companies line Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park, adjacent to legal firms midwifing the birth of new companies. Like small villages, everyone seems to know everyone else, and individuals move from company to company, or in and out of partnerships.

It is sometimes thought that research in universities or corporate laboratories produces technology that then transfers seamlessly into products and services. But technology doesn't transfer on its own—it is the people who have the knowledge in their heads that do the transferring. One of the keys to Silicon Valley successes is the transfer of professionals into the marketplace and the ability of researchers to start new companies. Universities that allow faculty members to consult a day a week on average seed the process of business innovation, as can be readily recognized by tallying the number of companies started by Stanford or Berkeley faculty—to say nothing of the students who start new companies.

What conditions give rise to innovation and facilitate its transforming effects? Contributing factors include the freedom to pursue ideas, the freedom to fail, and the freedom of access to information in the broadest sense. Occasional business failure in the U.S. is a mark of experience, while in other cultures it may be a permanent scar. Information sharing is generally considered a powerful means towards progress, hence the strong influence that the American university system has had on the economy.

One cannot escape the observation, however, that the incidence of intelligence is uniform in all populations around the world. There are absolutely more smart people outside the U.S. than there are living here. It is in our best interest to attract talent from anywhere in the world to participate in our innovation engine. Even if visitors return to their homelands after attending an American university, we will benefit from their contributions while they were here and, in all likelihood, even after they have returned home.

Despite our well-developed college and post-college system, America simply is not producing enough of our own innovators, and the cause is twofold—a deteriorating K-12 education system and a national culture that does not emphasize the importance of education and the value of engineering and science. The American public focuses more on sports and entertainment figures and less on the scientists and engineers whose innovations make our lives easier, safer, healthier and more productive.

Since 1990, U.S. scientists and engineers have invented the lithium-ion battery that powers all manner of devices from tablet computers to electric cars, developed GPS for civilian use to keep us on the right path to our destinations, and created both remote-controlled military aircraft (drones) to keep our soldiers safe overseas and robots that keep our floors clean at home. But how many among us know the names of the creators of the lithium-ion battery at Bell Laboratories, or the founder of iRobot Corp. and inventor of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner now sold around the world?

By contrast, Japan, Spain, Norway, Sweden and many European countries shine a much brighter national spotlight on international science and technology breakthroughs. In northern Spain, the Prince of Asturias Awards for science and technology is a multi-day affair, as is the Japan Prize ceremony for contributions to the progress of science and technology. And of course the Nobel prizes draw international attention and renown.

So what's America to do?

Young people should understand and experience the thrill of science and discovery. We need to help them do real science, not just read about it, through collaborative tools that help mentors and students to interact through programs such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' tryengineering.org. Children learn best by seeing and doing, not by memorizing.

It's also important to reintroduce to the American culture a higher regard for engineers and scientists. The winners of our National Medals of Science and Technology deserve more public attention. Our successful scientists and engineers should be made more visible and their voices heard more often. Most important, however, is the need to refresh and invigorate interest in and regard for science and engineering in our youth.

School and extracurricular opportunities for young people to work with experienced scientists and engineers should be expanded. Successful examples include the FIRST robotics program established by Dean Kamen (entrepreneur and inventor of the Segway PT), Google's recently launched global Science Fair, and the 50-year partnership between NASA and the National Science Teachers Association. By elevating interest in math and science, we will foster the innovation and ingenuity that will move this nation forward into a better future.

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Blogger SNAKE HUNTERS said...

Yes! But the question remains:

Will Innovation and Inventive Genius ever get us back to producing and exporting marketable things that can compete with cheap labor in India & China? We invent, they duplicate, then sell it back to us at Wal-Mart. - reb
___ ___

12:19 AM  
Blogger John Washburn said...

First and foremost we need to get our children out of those factories of mediocrity we call public schools, where they do a lot of things but teaching aint one of them.

I think you have some good ideas here. It's clear something innovative and "outside-the-box" needs to happen with education. The public school experiment is officially a dismal failure.

Chew on this, China has more honor students than America has students.

How are we to compete with that? Some things better change fast.

10:15 PM  
Blogger no_slappz said...


In terms of education, our first mistake to approach public schooling as thought every student is a potential college graduate.

Second, and possibly more important, is the hiring process for teachers. To make a long a story short, prospective junior-high and high-school teachers who want to teach math, physics, chemistry and biology must present college transcripts that show they've taken classes in a foreign language.

No other orgnanization in the country would make a similar demand. What connection exists between teaching math or science and college-level language studies?

What happens? An artificial labor shortage is created. That's what happens. People with B.S. degrees (no language requirement) in engineering and science cannot become teachers of math and science in public schools, thereby eliminating a huge pool of job seekers.

The next mistake is to throw new teachers directly into the classroom. The one skill no college can teach is classroom management. Throwing a new teacher into the deep end of the pool is no way to learn it.

Schools should adopt a progression plan. New teachers should start as assistant teachers, grading homework, tutoring and filling the role of substitute teacher, and aftera year, they should move up to the role of full teacher.

Our current system is okay for about two-thirds of our students. But it fails too many who slip toward the bottom or would otherwise fly to the top.

7:32 AM  

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