In 1958, Jack Kilby invented the microchip out of a uniform solid piece of silicon. Layered on top were the wires and components for supercomputing. The chip was born a year after I was. Since its invention, the chip has improved. I would like to think that through the years I developed, but certainly not as much as the chip has! The modern-day version of that first microchip is 90,000 times more energy efficient and offers 3,500 times the performance of the original innovation. I haven’t achieved anywhere near that level of return.
That level and pace of technological improvement are as inspiring as they are disconcerting. For teachers, today’s extraordinary pace of technological change leaves our egos bruised. When my school created the D!Lab as a place for students to design, think, and make, we introduced new software for the operation of the machines and CAD (computer assisted design). The students worked on platforms and software so quickly. There were days when instead of my mental aperture widening, I felt it slamming shut. Uncertainty and change humble us.
That makes me believe even more that school must be more about accumulating questions and finding problems to solve and less about just gathering facts. A school must be less about endlessly repeating the knowledge of the past and begin to write tomorrow’s future with skills of intellect, purpose, compassion, and ingenuity. Students today face the future with thousands of years of innovation and invention at their backs. That arc of discovery and invention led to flight, supercomputers, spacecraft that land on asteroids, cracking of the genetic code, and every imaginable type of material. That span of the invention represents every generation’s response to those winds of need and change. Like the first light of a new telescope that allows scientists to see clearer, deeper, and further into the unknown, individuals contribute their “first sight” perspective as they solve the problems of their age. In the past, change sometimes created periods of uncertainty and sometimes even fear, but each moment carved out frontiers for creative minds, that in turn created new ways of seeing and shaping the future.
If we treat the history of invention and innovation as mere facts to learn, all that factual debris will crush us. We simply can’t remember, let alone comprehend that much knowledge. But, if we teach that history as inspiration, lessons, achievements, stories, and as a compass, our mindset will fix on the discovery and our actions on innovation.
Our schools must orient our students’ creativity toward the frontiers with an eye on the past. In the future, as we face significant issues of housing, energy, food security, health, transportation, and education, we can herald any new uncertainty with the power and potential of creativity, academic acumen, ingenuity, and compassion. When this happens, we all glimpse the first sight of future innovation. Brace yourself; that view is inspirational.