Where Will the Next Generation of Innovators Come From?

Yesterday was a busy day. Google announced at 3am EST their "GoogleGiveBack" program, listing grants they've made to support education, technology innovation, and the fight against modern-day slavery. Shona Brown, SVP of Google.org, posted on the company's official blog that "science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) open up great opportunities for young people, so we've decided to fund 16 great programs in this area...providing enhanced STEM education for more than 3 million students." We are included and are deeply grateful to receive a $250,000 Google grant to support the growth of the Globaloria learning network in San Jose/Silicon Valley. We've been working nationally and globally in the past five years, but the aim in Silicon Valley is to grow local talent by teaching kids game design and computer programming to cultivate a broad array of STEM knowledge and digital skills, improve community-wide civic engagement and regional innovation, and help ease Silicon Valley's talent crunch.

As I tweet, blog, and respond to email questions from the press, I'm also watching live the Innovation and the Global Market forum in Washington DC (jointly sponsored by Aspen Institute, PBS Newshour, and Intel Corporation) focused on a related issue on which there is agreement at all points along the political spectrum--namely, that innovation is an economic engine.

Billed as "a discussion on American innovation, trade, and the next 10 million jobs," today's forum featured panels on trade, the global marketplace, and technology and job creation in the U.S. The keynote speaker, appropriately enough, was the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton--whose presence gave further emphasis, if more were needed, that the U.S. role as a leader among nations is at stake in any and all efforts to maintain our standing as the innovation economy.

Underlying all the discussions was the universally embraced proposition that innovation generates new enterprises that expand markets and create jobs de novo, thereby extending the range of labor and trade opportunities as well as augmenting the number of jobs. In every way, therefore, from policy concerns to the nation's economic future, to the lives of millions of workers and millions seeking employment, the need to stimulate and maintain innovation is absolutely essential.

That prompts a few big questions in my mind: Where are the innovators going to come from? And how?

Policymakers, government officials, and business leaders can implement all sorts of special initiatives to nurture innovation and support it when it happens. Those initiatives can make it possible for scientists in university labs, or some high school kids playing around with computers in a local library or museum, or organizations out in the field who see a better way of doing things to make it happen. And indeed, that is the kind of innovation that advances our economy and drives the creation of jobs.

But it's time to think bigger faster, because that's not where innovation begins. Innovation begins in the mind. And it is up to all of us and our schools and community centers to equip young minds, as early as possible and as often as conceivable, with the tools and capabilities that can potentially empower everyone to innovate.

What are those tools and capabilities? They derive from what we know about the creative process and about breakthrough thinking. We know that innovation happens not so much in a flash as through a sequence of problem-solving steps--numerous adjustments that flesh out an idea into a real product or market. We know that the process typically requires knowing how to come up with lots of ideas and trials and how to reject some. We also know that it works best through collaboration, as connections are made, analogies drawn, prototypes built that one mind would not otherwise have thought of.

In other words, we need to ensure that all our students everywhere are repeatedly given opportunities to acquire the skills of imagining ideas, critical analysis, building models, and collaborative learning. And of course, since theirs is a technological age, they must master the skills of digital literacy and acquire the knowledge needed for effectively using tools of social networking and computer programming; in fact, these must become second nature to students if they are to participate as citizens and qualify for the high-tech industries that will require them as workers in the future, much less prepare them to innovate.

A model learning initiative now in effect in several states is today succeeding in inculcating just these skills and capabilities among kids of middle- and high-school age. It is Globaloria. It turns social networking into a learning platform for cultivating innovation in a multi-year curriculum of game design and programming. It equips students with precisely these tools and skills as they learn a range of subject matters--most especially, STEM subjects.

How do they learn? By doing. Students are organized in teams, and each team chooses a topic on which team members then conceptualize, design, create, edit, re-edit, produce, program, debug, polish, and publish a game. Keep in mind: Because it has been aimed primarily at educationally-underserved and technologically under-resourced communities, most of the young people Globaloria serves do not own laptops or tablets and know little about Google tools, Mediawiki, Photoshop, HTML, Java, or Flash; they probably know what a webpage is but not what web design actually means. But given their game-making assignment, they create their own collective learning culture, and step by step, together, they create designs, animations, prototypes, and interactive simulations using pervasive industry-standard tools and the support that Globaloria gives them: a digital curriculum, programming tutorials, game-content resources, and virtual expert support and dynamic help systems (including training their teachers really well!).

Learning to innovate through making games? Yes. Because games are complex systems to figure out, because figuring them out teaches STEM, and also because they are becoming a leading industry and the major language of digital literacy today. Children learn best by doing, and they end up learning more by constructing educational games about big topics and critical ideas than by using instructional textbooks and worksheets.

Along the way, they learn the technical and computing skills that are increasingly essential for participation in the economic and civic life of their society. They gain the kind of content knowledge that can prepare them for college-level courses, global entrepreneurship, and the innovation economy's workforce. They sharpen their faculties of imagination, analysis, critical thinking, and problem-solving--and thereby may even perform better in their other courses as well. They learn how to work with others--how to listen and how to contribute, how to ask for help, troubleshoot with others, and integrate a team member's solution. No wonder teachers and students recommend Globaloria to their friends; it is fun and engaging and working well for them in a variety of rather challenging urban and rural locations within a range of schools and community centers.

The Globaloria effort in Silicon Valley seeks to do all this on a regional, community level. Ironically enough, the Valley is a place sorely in need of the kinds of benefits Globaloria can bring. In fact, I think what we're doing here is essential if the Valley is to maintain its technology innovation leadership role. In my view, it will take a shift in thinking for that to happen, as I'll discuss in my next post.