Invest in hands-on-learning and watch the digital-savvy talent pool grow

If we want to ensure that the talent pipeline is robust and plentiful for a digital future, we need to invest in it now. We have a great opportunity for industry and academia to partner and inspire our youth to participate in innovation programs to solve local issues while teaching kids how to make a difference.

While the business world and global economies are experiencing a digital revolution, so is education. Traditional educational models are being put the test. However, experiential education - dating back to the days of Aristotle and in modern history in the 1970s - is experiencing something of a renaissance, but within a new digital paradigm.

What's old is new again.

Taking young people out of the classroom and into real-world experiences and scenarios (or what's also known as project-based learning) is the cornerstone for preparing students for the future and enabling the dynamic and well-rounded talent pool our economy requires.

While learning outside of the traditional classroom setting isn't a new concept, experiential education has yet to be broadly embedded in the education curriculum, but has been treated as more of an "add-on," with a few exceptions. But it needs to be a core tenant of early education. These real-world, hands-on experiences can give young talent unparalleled insight into the world-of-work and future careers, help them develop job-related skills, and contribute to the welfare of their communities.

At Cisco, we see investing in these young, bright, inquisitive minds as investing in our own future. It's really one-and-the-same.

We recently hosted a hackathon event at a school in our Silicon Valley backyard, to demonstrate the hands-on approach to learning that we believe so strongly in.

Cisco's Services Innovation Excellence Center collaborated with Bullis Charter School in Los Altos, Calif. to run an event called "Innovate Together" for students in grades 6-8. This event is part of a growing trend in education - experimenting with experiential learning models.

To see a video of the event, click here.

Students were asked to develop an idea using Internet of Things technology that would have a positive impact on their community. More than 150 students participated, coming up with concepts ranging from an app to help parents control their children's "screen time," to an app that uses image recognition to determine if a consumer product was tested on animals.

Research has found that experiential and project-based learning is linked to significant improvements in student test scores, attendance and classroom engagement as well as improved higher-order thinking and problem-solving skills, and speaks to a broader range of learners. In one study funded by the National Science Foundation, students in project-based physical science classes performed an average of 8 percent better on end-of-unit learning assessments than their peers in traditional classes. It's not just K-12 students who benefit from this approach; a 2014 study found that medical students' test scores increased when project-based learning was implemented.

The Bullis students' ideas were judged on criteria including creativity/originality, magnitude of community impact, ease of use, incorporation of IoT technology, and presentation.

The winning proposal was "The Sellery," which would distribute fresh salads through vending machines. The team won $250 to donate to the community charity of their choice.

Through this project, the students not only learned about helping their communities but they also learned about leading technology applications in the IoT. From a broader perspective, these types of programs will ultimately help to close the current technology skills gap we face as a society.

What we witnessed from these bright young students was invaluable. We saw eyes light up at the idea that they could invent, create, build and make a difference in their own community.

This partnership with Bullis Charter Schools is the kind of opportunity we must provide to our youth - the talent of the future. Our approach to experiential learning will continue to foster innovation, collaboration across business disciplines and industries, and create new pathways for future entrepreneurs.

We must continue to invest in the future, both on a personal and organizational level. Industries need to recognize the importance of investing in our educational system and our future leaders to help them innovate and develop new solutions.