Citekey: @nae2015

National Academy of Engineering. (2015). Educate to Innovate: Factors That Influence Innovation: Based on Input from Innovators and Stakeholders. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.


This book on ‘education for innovation’ is a fun read. Ideas presented in the book are mostly based on interviews and workshops with ‘innovators’ and resonated with me. Chapter 4, which presents a framework that explains how skills experiences and environments relate to innovation, is of particular interest to me.


A new educational paradigm is needed to help current and future American workers remain competitive. Corporate and national educational strategies should create opportunities for students and workers to develop their ability to innovate. (p. 9)

The aim of the Educate to Innovate project is to expand and improve the innovative capacity of individuals and organizations by identifying critical skills, attributes, and best practices—indeed, cultures—for nurturing them. (p. 9)

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? (p. 13)

What Is Innovation? (p. 21)

There was general agreement on a first-order distinction between innovation and entrepreneurship: Innovation creates societal value (through an existing or new product, process, or service), and entrepreneurship involves realizing the market value of an opportunity, not necessarily an innovation, by making it commercially or socially viable. (p. 21)

FIGURE 4-1 Factors that contribute to the success of innovators. (p. 28)

ough they are examined individually, skills were often discussed as part of a obtain those skills. Accordingly, a new framework for factors that influence the success collection of factors that contribute to successful innovation, each of which may fuel or depend on of innovators has been developed (Figure 4-1). It captures the interplay between skills, another. Some of these characteristics may be perceived as innate, but many participants felt that they can experiences, and environments as fundamental to the success of innovators. In general, be nurtured by educational programs. environments provide experiences and these experiences enhance or develop the skills of the innovators. When asked to think abo (p. 28)

participants similarly noted the application necessity of creativity for invention, innovation, the interviewed innovators cited and entrepreneurship. According to Ryan Bailey, “I think you can be creative without being innovative, but it would be hard to • creativity, be innovative without being creative.” KT Moortgat (p. 28)

intense curiosity, • the ability to identify serendipitous moments, • willingness to take risks and to fail, • passion, • knowledge of their field, • the ability to identify good problems/ideas, • the ability to work at the interfaces of disciplines, and • the ability to sell an idea. (p. 29)

Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo (p. 30)

David Hornik contends that innovators get frustrated when they encounter problems and constantly think about how to improve everything they encounter in their daily lives and “the fact that people are not making it better, and so they see lots and lots of opportunities to make the world a better place, and they envision ways in which to do it.” (p. 30)

Intense Curiosity (p. 30)

People who are curious tend to be observant of new ideas, concepts, or situations and associate them with something else they’ve learned and take advantage of serendipitous situations. (p. 30)

Ability to Identify Serendipitous Moments (p. 31)

Others felt that the US education system does not prepare its students to look for or take advantage of such moments. One reason for this, according to Tim Cook, is that education is “largely too formal, too predictable, too planned, too regimented, too routine.” Franz Aliquo extended this characterization to life in general: “Life is really built to make you ignore those serendipitous moments . . . to stick with a predetermined path instead of noticing these weird things that are happening on the periphery. . . . I learned to overcome it the hard way by noticing the various streams of life and having to select those that were most appropriate for me.” (p. 31)

Risk Taking (p. 31)

There’s a big difference between encouraging failure and discouraging fear of failure. The really big wins, from an innovation perspective, are often risky and uncertain. You can’t tell if you’re going to succeed or fail when you start. You have to build and be unafraid of failing on the other side. You don’t have to like failure, but in order to get the big win, you cannot fear it. – Regina Dugan (p. 32)

Andy Walshe talked about the importance of distinguishing between perceived risk and actual risk: “We need to differentiate the perceived level of risk versus actual risk. If the perceived risk is much higher than the actual risk, it provides for good training opportunities as long as the difference is not so great that it causes the person to ‘freeze’ or lose the ability to learn from the situation. If the perception of risk is low but the actual risk is high, then the results can be catastrophic. In our business this is when people get hurt or killed. High performers are ‘masters of risk.’” (p. 32)

At the same time, the innovators cautioned against blind acceptance of failure, which could lead to experimenting for the sake of experimenting. (p. 32)

Passion (p. 32)

Andy Walshe said that having passion for one’s pursuit buffers the emotional impact of failure and helps an innovator persevere in the face of failure (p. 33)

Field-Specific Knowledge (p. 33)

Alan Heeger added that the depth of the knowledge should be such that “you get to a point where you have almost an intuition about what is right and what is wrong. If something is not right, you can smell it. After you have that core of knowledge and experience then you can branch out and learn other techniques, learn other experiments.” (p. 33)

Beyond in-depth knowledge in their field, innovators must know their capabilities and limitations. In the absence of such self-awareness, the innovator risks not being able to choose the most promising directions. (p. 33)

Choosing what not to do is unbelievably important, but by its nature is overlooked as a skill set. (p. 33)

Ability to Identify Good Problems/Ideas (p. 33)

The interviewees cited the importance of the ability to identify a good problem. But they acknowledged that identifying a good problem is not a straightforward process. In the words of David Morse, “There is an art to innovation—knowing how to recog- (p. 33)

nize things that have a chance of becoming a commercial success and what it takes to achieve that (practical) success.” Robert Langer concurred: “I’m not sure that there’s a single answer to that [how to identify good problems/ideas], and I don’t know that there’s a simple way to say that a certain idea is absolutely a good idea. It’s kind of like beauty—a good idea is just like ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’” (p. 34)

interviewees provided important guidelines for doing so: • Spend a considerable amount of time coming up with, thinking about, and defining the problem. • Follow your instinct/intuition. • Choose problems based on their impact on humanity and identify where there is a need. • Identify actionable problems—those that are practical and have solutions that can be executed. • Target areas where there is less activity. • Gather input from those the innovation is meant to help. • Investigate failure and ask yourself, “Is there a path that will lead to success?” • Identify interesting problems, ones that you feel passionate about. • Know when to quit or change direction. (p. 34)

Innovators are people who are real misfits in their field, because they can see across borders, they can see across borders of discipline, geography, all of that. They’re the ones who can make those disparate connections between, say, DNA and a hard drive, and say “Let me make a DNA hard drive.” – NinaTandon (p. 34)

Alyssa Panitch said that she is most innovative when she is on the fringes of what she knows and what she does not know well, and that she is less constrained by the “dogma of the disciplines” when she is operating in this space. She calls herself a “jack of all trades” and said, “I always argue that I know just enough chemistry and know just enough biology to be dangerous, and I think that that’s true.” (p. 35)

The more interesting intersections, in my experience, are those that are unexpected. – Frans Johansson (p. 35)

The ability to communicate one’s ideas in a clear and inspiring way is increasingly important in the growing global information economy, and is crucial for innovators, who are often engaged in team activity. (p. 35)

Bob Metcalfe agreed that, in contrast to the process of inventing, innovation “involves more people, involves selling your ideas, and the kind of selling that is mostly listening!” (p. 36)

From the Workshop: Additional Skills and Attributes (p. 36)

ability to handle uncertainty (p. 36)

persistence. Also cast as “grit,” “street smarts,” “bull-headedness,” and “dogged determination,” (p. 36)

Flexibility was mentioned as a necessary complement to persistence—the ability and willingness to change course during a problem-solving process. (p. 36)


• interdisciplinary collaborations, • industrial experience, • identification and solution of open problems, • mentorship, • role models, and • upbringing that nurtures innovation. (p. 37)


In 1916 John Dewey wrote, “We never educate directly, but indirectly by means of the environment. Whether we permit chance environments to do the work, or whether we design environments for the purpose, makes a great difference.”1 (p. 43)

Interviewees and workshop participants observed that although children enter school full of curiosity, creativity, and other promising skills, the educational environments seem not to encourage but actually discourage the development and enhancement of skills. Academic institutions should design an environment that provides experiences to the students to develop or enhance skills needed to become successful innovators. Guidance, independence, accessibility, flexibility, encouragement, socialization—these are elements of an environment that help students to be innovative. (p. 43)

The innovators’ thoughts and recollections about environment yielded the most detailed understanding of the types and characteristics of this influence on their lives. Environments that encourage innovation should • explicitly encourage innovation, • have physical spaces for free/open/informal discussions, • facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, • encourage following one’s passion, • place a strong emphasis on the value of education, and • provide freedom to tinker. (p. 44)

A participant from the large business sector explained that newer measures of success in innovation are yielded by questions such as, “Did you get to a decision point in your project team?” “Did you collectively achieve what you set out to do?” “How did you bring everybody together for innovation?” In other words, there is emphasis on the group, not the individual innovator. (p. 54)

Start by identifying what kids really care about. (p. 54)

Further research: Some natural attributes cannot be taught so it may be more useful to think about how to avoid destroying them. Research to identify what prevents innovation would be helpful. (p. 55)

Recent culture has taught students that failure is not acceptable/expected. An “everyone wins” approach leads students to think success is quick and easy. Create the right messages so that students have realistic views about innovation: — Innovation is difficult. — Innovation requires patience. — Failure is a natural part of the journey toward success. — Success has many definitions. Suggestion: Schools could create a more realistic environment in which students can experience small failures and learn how to be resilient through experience and debriefing. This isn’t about encouraging failure but supporting the idea that it is acceptable to fail and recover. Success in innovation is more about give and take, limitations and challenge and less about straight risk and failure or success. “Do, Fail, Learn.” (p. 56)

Work toward a culture shift in academia, because it seems that educating to innovate is at odds with the way many universities operate currently. Academia should reevaluate the reasons for teaching traditional and heavily structured knowledge, which may conflict with the expectations of today’s employers. (p. 58)

Weave innovation-related knowledge and experiences (e.g., risk taking and management, failure, real-world problems, mentors) into existing courses, because it is difficult to start new courses and programs from scratch, and because innovation should be pervasive in the academic environment. (p. 59)

K–12 Education (p. 62)

Tangible shortand long-term measures of success should be considered, and should take account of both group and individual performance. For example, did the group collectively achieve what it set out to do? Was a decision point reached within a project team? It may also be helpful to compare school/program graduates with a baseline cohort. (p. 62)

In terms of elements to be considered for innovation education, the group stressed learning by doing and getting students to be comfortable with the idea of not finding immediate answers. Students must be given the freedom to generate creative ideas even if there is no short-term return or fruition. Educators, in turn, need to understand how to give students more time to innovate, balancing between providing freedom and using deadlines. (p. 63)

• Provide more opportunities for learning by doing and balance the teaching of foundations with freedom (e.g., more time to innovate) and deadlines. Encourage creative ideas even if there is no short-term return or fruition of the idea. Make people comfortable with not finding immediate answers. (p. 63)

The facilitator asked, “What needs to happen in K–12 in order to educate to innovate?” • Combine innovation with the teaching of basic science through projects or open-ended labs. • Create interdisciplinary teams to complement each other, e.g., integrating the arts with STEM subjects. • Create strategic partnerships—for example, between small business development centers, Chambers of Commerce, universities, businesses, and economic development organizations—to develop pipelines for students to work on ideas. • Create a pedagogy, class, framework, or method where students learn from their mistakes without being penalized. Make failure a learning experience. • Improve preservice education for teachers. • Create job-embedded professional development to support stronger cultures of professional growth. • Reimagine the curriculum based on the goals we want to get out of it. • Question or challenge the notion that education needs to be standardized. • Introduce students to the creative process. Create spaces for tinkering and connections among people with different talents so there is cross-fertilization among tinkering projects. Google’s 20 percent time was cited as an example, as well as Invent to Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom (Sylvia Libow Martinez and Gary Stager, 2013). • Get the accreditation function of state governments to agree that innovation needs to be a goal. • Develop and distribute grade-level-specific materials called “The Educate to Innovate Curriculum,” tied to science standards, with a student activity prong and a teacher professional development prong. Teachers can earn credit for taking the course. Start the curriculum in grade 2, with video accessible via You Tube. All materials should be available on the web and without cost. (p. 64)

• Develop or refine assessment tools to see if they are working. For example, ask students how their specific learning experiences worked. (p. 65)

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