Training Tomorrow’s Innovators
Identifying problems and managing failure are key abilities for success.
Opinion By Arden Bement and Deba Dutta
Can innovation be taught? We think so. If that seems strange, consider the many people who, until recently, doubted whether something as intangible as “entrepreneurship” could be taught. Now, research detailing the qualities and experiences of successful entrepreneurs is being translated into successful programs at universities and businesses nationwide. The same could occur for innovation.
To our knowledge, scant research has been devoted to teaching innovation. That’s why we started the Educate to Innovate project. Funded by The National Science Foundation, its goal is to gain a better understanding of the components of successful innovation – typically the step between basic research and a viable start-up – so that educators and policymakers in business, the K-12 sector, academia, and government can more effectively promote innovation and improve the country’s “innovation ecosystem.”
Educate to Innovate began with 60 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with successful U.S. innovators. The interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed, and analyzed qualitatively to identify common attributes, which we organized into Skills (such as being able to work at the interfaces of disciplines and connect the dots); Experiences (a liberal arts education, for example); and Environments (including actively promoting widespread discussion and encouragement of innovation). These interviews were followed by a two-day “Educate to Innovate: What and How” workshop, held this past October at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, D.C. The workshop brought together more than 75 artists, academics, business managers, K-12 teachers, investors, government leaders, and other innovators to share insights on teaching innovation and related skills and environments.
Our findings point to better ways to foster innovation in students, researchers, and employees. First, innovation differs from entrepreneurship, which can be defined as the process of transforming innovation into business ventures. People often use the terms interchangeably, indicating a need to educate the general population and our teachers on what the innovative process entails, then to design distinct educational programs for innovation and entrepreneurship.
Managing failure is crucial. Nearly every interviewee and workshop participant noted the importance of processing failure productively so that the “innovation journey” can continue and eventually bear fruit. Understanding the challenges associated with failure and how to manage the “failure recovery process” can help educators, trainers, and business leaders guide students to keep striving for innovation following their inevitable mistakes and dead ends.
The ability to identify problems is as important as the ability to solve them. Many scientists are trained to tackle a problem set in front of them, but innovators tend to see problems that others don’t. Encouraging students and employees to brainstorm about problems and not just solutions is crucial for developing innovation-oriented thinking.
People skills are as important as technical expertise. Innovation in most industries requires teams that encompass multiple specialties. Thus, successful innovation demands such “soft” skills as flexibility, friendliness, and the ability to participate in discussions. To be effective, STEM education must train students to learn from and work productively with others, rather than focus solely on nurturing technical knowledge and skills.
Mentorship encourages innovation. Nearly all interviewees identified one or two people – usually teachers or professors – who showed them how to think creatively and encouraged them to tinker, experiment, and attempt to solve problems from multiple angles.
President Obama said that America must be a leader in innovation to maintain its economic vitality. We agree. And as a recent Prism article (“Strange Labfellows,” March-April, 2013) noted, the research necessary to make better engineers (and innovators) will involve social scientists as well as engineering and science faculties. Educate to Innovate (www.educatetoinnovate.org) is laying the groundwork for those scholars with the expectation that a better understanding of innovators and the innovation process will drive significant economic growth and improve lives.
Former National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement is an engineer and founding director of the Global Policy Research Institute at Purdue University. Deba Dutta is Gutgsell Professor of mechanical science and engineering, and dean of the Graduate College at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.