Innovation as a Way of Life

Dallas may have been the center of the sports world on Sunday during the Super Bowl. But Texas aims to be the center for innovation when it comes to producing thousands more graduates who are prepared for higher education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

February 7, 2011

Dallas may have been the center of the sports world on Sunday during the Super Bowl. But Texas aims to be the center for innovation when it comes to producing thousands more graduates who are prepared for higher education and careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

The state’s T-STEM initiative is leveraging public and private support to turn out more than 3,000 new graduates each year who are ready for college and careers in STEM-related fields; recruit and train teachers in STEM subject areas; and foster a statewide network of best practices.

Innovation is an increasingly popular term taking center stage in federal and state policy discussions. It was a key component of President Obama’s State of the Union address and his call to action for America to “win the future.” He referenced innovation 10 times, in fact, and said, "innovation doesn't just change our lives, it's how we make a living."

“Innovation” has also been a hallmark of governors’ inaugural and state of the state addresses. A majority of the 39 governors who delivered their agenda-setting speeches cite the importance of innovation and fostering advances in education performance and economic growth.

For example, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada said, “Our future lies in business sectors like technology commercialization, bioscience, renewable energy asset development, and defense sector expansion. Innovation will drive tomorrow’s economy, and so it must drive our decision-making as we rebuild our economic development infrastructure.” Missouri Governor Jay Nixon tied innovation to his support for financial aid and community colleges.

But is all the talk about innovation among our elected officials just rhetoric? How exactly do we make a living from innovation?

It starts at the top but it happens in our schools, universities, and businesses.

Governors and our education systems must do their part in developing the next generation of big thinkers, problem solvers, and inventors. So, are states leaders or laggards when it comes to innovation, particularly in the vital STEM fields?

Many states are making innovation a priority, realizing there’s no time to waste.

Innovation in science produced approximately half of our economic growth over the last 50 years, and is expected to grow at twice the rate of our economy between now and 2018, according to the National Science Foundation and Anthony Carnevale of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. More than two-thirds of STEM jobs in the coming years will require a bachelor’s or master’s degree.

Are our states and our education system equipped to meet this challenge?

With all the data and all the talk in recent years about the need to increase the number of students earning STEM degrees, we should be seeing a spike in degrees, right? Not so much. The number of STEM bachelor’s degrees is actually growing at a slower pace than other degrees like business, social sciences, and visual and performing arts. Additionally, the United States ranks 27th among developed nations in the proportion of college students receiving undergraduate degrees in science or engineering.

With less than half of U.S. students taking math beyond two years of algebra and one year of geometry, it’s no wonder that China now produces eight times more scientists and engineers than the U.S. and India produces three times as many.

West Virginia understands the need for a dual focus on completion of STEM degrees and incubating new industries. Thanks to the leadership of state officials, including Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and former Gov. Joe Manchin, a former Union Carbide facility is being transformed into a new research campus, the West Virginia Education, Research and Technology Park. With one of the few states with a surplus this budget year, the state would be wise to target funding toward a completion-focused performance funding model and the new innovation park that can prosper with a new generation of STEM graduates.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has made it clear that partnering with the State University of New York (SUNY) is vital to revitalizing the state’s economy.

Gov. Cuomo calls for new regional councils, led by a SUNY institution, to compete against each other “for up to $200 million in funding. Competition works. Let them come up with their best plans, compete against the other regions and we will fund the most creative plans,” he said.

In Virginia, Gov. Bob McDonnell is trying to deliver on his campaign pledge to ensure that 100,000 more degrees are awarded in the state over the next 15 years, with a focus on science. “These new degrees will make Virginia one of the most highly educated states in the world,” McDonnell said in his state of the state address.

The governor backed up his rhetoric with funding proposals, including $25 million for the Virginia Research and Technology Innovation Program and $5 million to support small business growth through the Virginia Small Business Financing Authority.

Governors may set expectations and provide seed capital for innovation, but colleges and universities must create an environment for innovation to flourish and spread. The Oscar-nominated movie, “The Social Network,” demonstrates how an innovation like Facebook can be sparked on a college campus – and then can quickly outrun its network, its culture, and its hallowed traditions. Innovation at its best improves and advances by engaging more and more minds and users. In the book, Where Good Ideas Come From, the author Steven Johnson urges an open-sourced approach to invention and problem solving. He says innovation is most likely to occur when ideas from different people, and even different fields, are “rapidly banging against one another.”

Unleashing innovation is how we will make a living. And it will define our way of life for decades to come.


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