Talking to 5th Graders about careers is like talking about bicycles with a fish.
According to research by Raytheon and others, America loses about 60% of its future innovators before the age of 13. These are kids who start elementary school genuinely excited about science. By the time they hit seventh grade, the majority feel that science is “boring” and irrelevant to their lives. Of course the irony of this belief is lost on the most wired and healthy generation in history. I believe one of the biggest factors is the context in which we present science to our elementary and middle school students. We are telling 5th graders they should study science so they can have a better career. The trouble is, 5th graders don’t care about that just yet. I’ve been talking to kids, educators and leaders in technology and innovation for 3 years. Our young people might be pretty clueless on many of the things we grown-ups obsess over, but one idea they grasp quite well is that they will ultimately inherit the Earth. They are looking for ways they can take some control in shaping this future and most deeply care about helping other people.
I was sitting in the hospital one day about a year ago undergoing treatment for a chronic illness (I go every eight weeks) and I had a revelation. The idea struck me like a proverbial ton of cinder blocks and my first thought was “Damn, we adults are so stupid!” Then, I realized I said it out loud as Nurse Ratchet glared at me from across the room. But the idea persisted and I believe it is a fundamental truth that puts science and innovation in the “ultimate context” – not only for kids for for educators and all people.
If you keep asking yourself “why?” you always end up at a fundamental truth. “Why do we need a good career?” “Why do we need to make money?” “Why do we need to make better stuff?” – all roads lead to the Ultimate Context.
All of those things are a means to an end. And that end is the betterment of mankind. That is what science innovation is really about. As my son says “Without innovation, we’d still be sitting in a cave, gnawing on a Mastodon bone in the dark.” And he is 12.
When I got sick, it was somewhat dramatic (I always do everything big). I collapsed in my home. All my wife needed to do was dial three numbers on her cell phone and “they” send a fancy truck to haul my sorry ass to the hospital which was all of 7 minutes away from my house. They even threw in some fancy, flashing lights for the ride.
When I woke up, I had the best technology, experts and medicine on the planet at my fingertips. I owe my life to a lot of anonymous genius types who figured out how to make everything from the infusion machine to the medicine that courses through my veins. What would have happened to me if, by a blink of some cosmic eye, I was born in Africa or Nicaragua? I’d be dead.
But for my luck in being born in the most innovative nation on the face of the planet, I live to enjoy the American dream.
That is what science is about. It’s about feeding the planet. It’s about sanitation. It’s about access to medicine. And our kids are the ones to keep that ball rolling when we are gone. What if one of those 60% we lose before 7th grade is the one that would have cured cancer? That’s going to leave a mark.
I was talking to a new friend a few weeks ago who epitomizes American innovation and true grit. Leland Melvin is a former pro football player (Detroit Lions) turned astronaut. That’s right, he’s been to the space station, where I assume he got stuck in some of the hatches. He is not a small man. Leland said “Pete, everybody is just talking. Talk, talk, talk. If we are going to do something, lets DO it. No more talking.” Leland is right. It’s time to stop flapping our lips and start changing the conversation with kids.
And that is exactly what we are doing.