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Steve Jobs: Second greatest innovator of all time?

Steve Jobs ranked behind Thomas Edison in a question to young Americans about who is the greatest innovator of all time.Lemelson-MIT Program

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs ranks behind only Thomas Edison as the world's greatest innovator of all time in a survey released today on young Americans' attitudes about invention and innovation.

Jobs' innovations include the iPhone and iPad, the popular gadgets that are helping to revolutionize how we communicate with each other and sent Apple's stock to a record high Wednesday. 

His second-place finish in the survey of Americans aged 16 to 25 surprised Leigh Estabrooks, the invention education officer with the Lemelson-MIT Program, which conducted the survey.

"Here we have this innovation role model who has changed the way we live and yet young people still go back to Thomas Edison," she told me. "While he did great and wonderful things, most of his work was in the 1880s."

The result highlights the fact that invention and innovation are primarily taught in history class, not the math and science courses that are the foundation for careers in invention and innovation.

"Thomas Edison comes up because all students take history," she said. That's where we learned, for example, about his life-changing electric power distribution system and his money-making stock ticker.

Next-generation innovators

The Lemelson-MIT Program aims to foster an innovative spirit in America's youth. The annual Invention Index helps the program gauge the level of interest among young people in becoming innovators.

This year's results show that young Americans are aware of the role invention and innovation play in their lives and its importance as an economic driver, but 60 percent feel inhibited in pursing inventive careers themselves.

Many — 34 percent — said they simply don’t know enough about these fields. "That's daunting for a teenager to think about going into a field that they don’t know much about," Estabrooks noted.

Other students consider these fields too challenging to pursue and/or feel they were unprepared for such a career track in school.

According to Estabrooks, increasing awareness of career options in these fields is a key step. That means more mentors coming into classrooms to talk, especially to elementary and middle school students.

"The sooner we can share with kids the things they can do with science, technology, engineering and math, the better off we'll be," she said. 

"It is awfully hard to catch up with the math once you're in high school and almost impossible once you're in college."

"And it is hard," she added. "Therefore mentors can help by encouraging students to stick with it."

Hands-on experiences

More than just listening to an engineer or computer programmer talk, hands-on experiences inside and outside the classroom are paramount to fostering a new generation of innovators.

The survey shows American youth hunger for these opportunities, such as invention projects at school and creative field trips. Simply "a place to develop an invention" would be a good start for 52 percent of the respondents.

The opportunity to invent is working its way into classrooms across the country thanks to initiatives such as a framework for next-generation science standards released in July 2011 by the National Academy of Sciences.

The framework outlines a way for science teachers to incorporate engineering into their lessons, Kristina Peterson, head of the middle school science department at the Lakeside School in Seattle, Wash., explained to me.

(Disclosures: I'm a Lakeside alumnus as is Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates, another great innovator who, it turns out, wasn't included in the survey. is a joint venture between Microsoft and Comcast/NBC Universal.)

The school is in its second year of a revamped science curriculum that includes an engineering thread in all the science courses, grades 5-8, partially based on materials from the Boston Museum of Science.

"A key thing is engaging students in what's called engineering design process," Peterson said. "It has them not only inventing things, but also the big picture of the process of inventing."

Students learn to brainstorm ideas, research them, and communicate their goals, for example. They also learn to evaluate what they create so they can improve it with a redesign.

Other schools around the country are involved with programs such as Lemelson-MIT's own InvenTeams as well as First Robotics and First Lego League that provide the hands-on experience outside of the class.

And outside of the classroom learning has its advantages, according to Estabrooks.

For one, there's a finite amount time within the school day to learn. Students can tinker more outside of class time. As well, grades don't apply after school.

"One thing about inventors is that we encourage them to fail quickly and fail often," she said. "And in our academics, we certainly don't encourage our youth to fail."

Steve Jobs, who died last October, was certainly prone to fail. Products from the Apple III computer (1981) to Apple TV (2007) are considered among his misses. 

He was even fired from Apple in 1985, a humbling experience that led to his most fruitful innovations, he said during a commencement speech at Stanford in 2005:

"The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life." 

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John Roach is a contributing writer for To learn more about him, check out his website. For more of our Future of Technology series, watch the featured video below.