The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. . . . What we can do—what America does better than anyone else—is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.
– President Barack Obama, 20111
Innovation is widely heralded as the key to successful competition in the increasingly global economy. How is the United States preparing its students and workers to innovate and excel in the new economy? What skills and attributes need to be nurtured? Is it even possible to educate to innovate?
Until recently, many doubted whether entrepreneurship could be taught. Now research on the qualities and experiences of successful entrepreneurs is being translated into entrepreneurship education programs at universities and businesses around the country. It is conceivable that the same can—and indeed should—be done with innovation.
The National Academy of Engineering (NAE) organized the Educate to Innovate (ETI) project to answer these questions, drawing on the experiences and observations of dozens of innovators and input from stakeholders in large and small business, university-level academia, and K–12 education. This monograph presents an analysis of interviews with 60 innovators and insights from expert discussions at a workshop to identify the skills and attributes, experiences, and environments that contribute to innovators’ development and success.
Efforts to improve the capacity of individuals and organizations to innovate must be a high national priority to ensure that the United States remains a leader in the global
1 President Barack Obama, State of the Union Address, January 25, 2011.
economy. US universities already excel at teaching the basic sciences, engineering, and technologies that are essential for innovation. But, although several university programs focus on entrepreneurship, which helps translate inventions into marketable products and services, very little education focuses on innovation.
Starting with the premise that innovation can be taught or nurtured, the Educate to Innovate (ETI) project was established to “help identify and assess skill sets critical for innovation, and explore best practices for inculcating these in US-based students of engineering, science, mathematics, and technology.” Charles M. Vest, then president of the NAE, appointed a steering committee for the project and presented it with a twofold task:
- Pre-workshop study: Provide guidance to a research team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) that will interview a select group of successful American innovators and ask them to reflect on their education and careers and identify the skills, experiences, and environments that contributed to their becoming successful innovators.
- Workshop: Design and organize a workshop at which the results of the pre-workshop study and other relevant research and perspectives are presented and discussed with a view toward identifying best practices for inculcating these skill sets and experiences in students of engineering, science, mathematics, and technology.
The project began with 60 semistructured, open-ended interviews with US innovators. Digital recordings of the interviews were transcribed and qualitatively analyzed to identify attributes common to several innovators. The workshop, held October 22–23, 2013, at the NAS Building of the National Academies in Washington, DC, brought together 56 innovators and leaders from various fields to share insights on innovation and its education.2
PRE-WORKSHOP STUDY: INTERVIEWS AND ANALYSIS
US innovators were interviewed in open-ended conversations (by phone, video, or in person) that ranged from 30 minutes to two hours. The innovators have distinguished themselves in diverse fields; they include professors, researchers, engineers, innovation authors, artists, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and technical and business leaders of small and large businesses.3 The interview questions were designed to elicit narratives of personal experiences and perspectives on success in innovating and on factors that contribute to that success.
The interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, and reviewed by the interviewees for accuracy. The project team then used a qualitative data analysis program to identify
2 The workshop methods and demographic profile of the interviewees are presented in appendix A.
3 Brief biographical notes on the interviewees are in appendix B.
themes that were common among the responses and significant to the participants and thus distilled factors that contribute to the success of innovators.
The study findings were discussed and elaborated at the workshop.
The workshop brought together 56 stakeholders—including 23 of the interviewed innovators—representing large business, small business, academia, and K–12 education to examine the interview results and consider ways to enhance education to better prepare students to be innovative.4 The perspective of large businesses is relevant because they typically run internal programs that foster innovators; on the other hand, small businesses typically do not have programs devoted to innovation and yet have led to several innovations. Academics play the dual role of being innovators and being responsible for preparing future generations of innovators. The influence of childhood experiences and environments in the success of innovators is the domain of K–12 educators.
Four breakout groups convened in three successive sessions with the following tasks:
- Session I (90 minutes): Discuss the preliminary analysis of the interviews, address the assigned question (the four questions are listed below), and prioritize the skills, experiences, and environments identified in the innovator interviews.
- Session II (60 minutes): Identify “takeaways” from the first session and consider what else the workshop participants would like to learn from the interview analysis.
- Session III (90 minutes): Discuss next steps based on the discussions in the first two sessions and identify road blocks, points of leverage, and specific stakeholders.
The questions assigned in session I were posed by the steering committee to advance the discussion beyond the findings from the pre-workshop study:
- Are innovators different from entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs? How best to build natural bridges between innovation and entre-/intrapreneurship?
- How can individuals learn to transition from their own innovation capacity to group/team innovation capacity? How can this capacity be further extended to open innovation environments?
- In academic and federal research, merit review is the holy grail. But merit reviews and taxpayer dollars often fund conservative ideas. What are the best ways to train graduate students to be innovative in this environment?
4 The workshop agenda is in appendix C and the list of workshop participants in appendix D.
- What are the criteria for the best paradigm(s) for innovation education? What new elements need to be considered in such education?
For the first session the groups were heterogeneous in their composition to enable cross-sector knowledge exchange; group members’ backgrounds and interests were considered in forming these groups. For sessions II and III, the groups were reorganized by sector so that participants could bring what they had learned from the exchange of perspectives in session I and collaborate to identify sector-specific takeaways and next steps.
ORGANIZATION OF THE MONOGRAPH
Chapter 2 presents the keynote and plenary presentations from the workshop, offering overarching perspectives on the subject. Based largely on analysis of the interviews, chapter 3 provides definitions of innovation as distinct from entrepreneurship together with some defining characteristics of innovation. Specific skills, experiences, and environments that contribute to the success of innovators are described in chapter 4, drawing on the observations of both the interviewees and the workshop participants. Chapter 5 presents key discussions, “takeaways,” and suggested next steps based on the guided discussions in the three breakout sessions at the workshop.