IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Closing the innovation gap

Lemelson-MIT Program
MIT's Timothy Lu won the $30,000

Lemelson-MIT Student Prize in

2008 for inventing processes that

could combat bacterial infections.

When it comes to the next generation of innovation, the good news is that more teens are interested in pursuing careers in science and technology. The bad news is that they don't know where to turn. The Lemelson-MIT Program has put its finger on the problem - and is pointing toward a potential solution.

First, the good news: Eighty-five percent of the teens surveyed for this year's Lemelson-MIT Invention Index expressed interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, which are known as the STEM fields of study. That's a huge jump from last year's figure of 64 percent, according to the nonprofit program.

What's more, most of the teens said making money wasn't the primary reason for their interest.

"Fifty-six percent of those said protecting the environment or improving society was their interest for going into STEM," said Joshua Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT program. Another 44 percent said their interest arose from plain old curiosity about the way things work. Just 18 percent said they were primarily interested in fame or money.

Schuler told me today that the swing toward STEM could signal a change in mind-set for the next generation: "There's a huge, huge movement here in green technology. ... With the Obama administration coming in, there's this definite sense of change, and a desire to hit these environmental targets, and I think that resonates with young people."

Now for the not-so-good news: The teens were also asked what might discourage them from pursuing a STEM career. Thirty-one percent of the respondents said they didn't know anyone who worked in those fields, and another 28 percent said they didn't understand what scientists and engineers actually did.

That's where Schuler hopes he and his colleagues can make a difference. The Lemelson-MIT Program is probably best-known for the prizes it sponsors, including a $500,000 prize for midcareer inventors, a $100,000 prize for sustainable technologies, and an assortment of prizes for student inventors. But the program also runs an initiative called InvenTeams, which is aimed at putting students and teachers together with innovators from industry.

"It's a way that schools can introduce mentors and role models," Schuler explained. He emphasized that teachers are already doing a great job as role models. The InvenTeam initiative is simply aimed at giving those teachers an extra boost of tech savvy.

InvenTeams can receive grants of up to $10,000 to help them pursue solutions to technological challenges in their own communities. One team in Littleton, N.H., worked on a project to keep sidewalks clear in the wintertime. "The heat to melt the ice and snow comes from waste heat from the school's boilers," Schuler said.

The team brings in fresh blood every year, and this year they're working with engineers to develop a data-gathering system that can determine when to send the snowplows out to clear city streets, Schuler said.

The Lemelson-MIT Program also gives kids a broader view of how technology can help the planet. Last year, KickStart CEO Martin Fisher won the sustainability prize for his company's low-cost, human-powered irrigation pumps - and during the awards ceremony he met with students who were working on their own irrigation technologies.

"You can imagine how they felt," Schuler said. "Their 'god,' basically, in this field was on stage with them."

Seeing how good technologies can be used to do great things is the best way to close the innovation gap - not only in America, but around the world. For example, mobile phones are being used in regions of Asia and Africa to facilitate market transactions and financial services.

"This is really exciting for young people: 'The technology that I use for texting my friends can also be used for X, Y and Z in a developing country.' ... We're very optimistic about youth across the U.S. jumping on this trend of innovation for sustainability," Schuler said.

One field that's ripe for innovation is the energy industry, as illustrated by this week's greening of the Detroit Auto Show. In the survey conducted for the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, 37 percent of the teens said the gasoline-powered car was the technology most likely to become extinct in the next five years. Figuring out exactly how the cars of the future will be powered is one of the key jobs waiting for the innovators of this generation and the next generation.

For a list of other jobs, check out our report about the Grand Challenges for Engineering, and click on over to the National Academy of Engineering's Web site on the subject as well.

The Lemelson-MIT Program was founded in 1994 to encourage invention, entrepreneurship and sustainable technologies. Because the Invention Index is all about science, technology, engineering and math, you might be interested in the geeky details: The teen survey was conducted by the Opinion Research Corp. between Nov. 13 and 17, using a phone-based, multiple-choice format. The survey used a nationally representative sample of 501 teens, aged 12 to 17. The margin of error at a 95 percent confidence level was plus or minus 4.3 percent for the entire sample.