How to build the next generation of innovators

Education | 13 Jan, 2015 |

The average Millennial sends 67 text messages per day – one every 15 minutes of their waking lives. The next generation is inherently tech savvy because they have spent their whole lives around tech. It is easy to imagine that our future will be an unprecedented avalanche of innovation as these digital natives grow into their roles developing tomorrow’s technology.

But there is a difference between understanding technology and being an innovator of it. While the number of text messages sent by teenagers continues to climb, America’s educational readiness has been falling. In 2013 only 36 percent of high school graduates were prepared for college-level science classes.

Education in science, mathematics, and technology disciplines remains crucial. It is impossible to be a technology innovator without the strong fundamentals of a STEM education. Tomorrow’s biotech leaders need access to strong biology, mathematics and engineering curriculums today. Tomorrow’s software wizards are enrolled in computer science classes right now.

As important as those fundamentals are, we must remember that innovation tends to occur at the fringes between disciplines. Driverless cars occur at the intersection of automotive and computing engineering. Augmented reality innovators require an understanding of human psychology in addition to expertise in engineering and computer science. It is not enough to simply educate our youth in STEM disciplines. We must encourage their spirit of innovation by inviting them to explore the powerful results of intertwining specializations.

It can be difficult to foster interdisciplinary interconnectedness in the classroom. Because innovation occurs on new frontiers, tomorrow’s developments will occur at crossroads we haven’t yet imagined. How can we ask educators to write a curriculum to cover a convergence still undreamed of?

We need to encourage today’s youth to participate in experiential learning activities held outside the classroom. By providing them with hands-on educational projects, activities, and seminars, we can organically introduce young people to the power of lateral thinking and cross-curricular synergy. While we cannot predict what skillsets will overlap to produce tomorrow’s epicenter of innovation, we can make sure the next generation is practiced at looking for it.

The Arizona SciTech Festival is a great example of a program that gets this right. The festival features events from an impressive variety of fields, from coding to manufacturing polymers to directing videos. By enabling young people to engage in a wide swath of activities, we can help inspire tomorrow’s visionaries who will make the quantum-leap discoveries that occur at the interface between different disciplines.

But as proud as I am of the SciTech Festival as a Foundational Partner, it’s just a start. Businesses, academic institutions and technology innovators need to keep coming together to advance STEM education. We must invite today’s youth to participate in programs that encourage interdisciplinary overlap and engage multiple skill sets simultaneously. Leaders of all stripes can collaborate to encourage young people to practice making new connections. We know great things happen when you get bioscience and business together, and when materials manufacturers and industrial designers inspire one another. We need to get that message out to young people.

Outreach to youth can have a significant impact. Young people consider environmental responsibility to be of paramount importance. My own children would react with horror to the idea of dumping chemical runoff into a river, yet that practice was routine only two generations ago. The environmental movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s had a big impact on teachers, who brought conservation messaging into their classrooms. We can see the results: Contentiousness about sustainability isn’t just widespread but viscerally important to today’s youth.

Imagine the impact we can have on the technology leaders of tomorrow if we invite teachers to support STEM education with the same enthusiasm with which they support environmental awareness. Imagine those teaching efforts being backed up by business and technology leaders coming together to create extracurricular spaces where young people could employ the toolsets from many disciplines at once. Tomorrow’s leaders will be blazing trails along frontiers we haven’t even imagined. Let’s get them excited about exploring.

Steve Zylstra.photo_.1Steven G. Zylstra is president and CEO of the Arizona Technology Council.

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