Teaching Innovation

By Rebecca Richards-Kortum Ph.D.

The Dr. Paul Janssen Award for Biomedical Research honors scientists whose work has led to significant and transformational advances that improve human health. Scientific discoveries made by Janssen Award recipients have led to new and improved treatments for arthritis, cancer, diabetes, and HIV/AIDS. As we celebrate the achievements of the recipients, it is important to ask what the scientific community can do to ensure a robust pipeline of future innovators.

Can Innovation Be Taught? I believe innovation is a skill that can be taught. I’ve seen college freshmen become skilled and confident inventors in less than one semester. Just like science, innovation is a systematic process – it is simply the process of translating scientific discoveries into practical tools designed to address unmet societal needs. And just as we teach students to follow the scientific method, we can teach them to carry out the process of innovation.

Yet, science is often taught as a collection of facts rather than as a process. When students see only the results and not the process that leads to innovation, it is easy for them to believe that innovators are rare individuals born with some special innate ability. As a consequence, many highly capable students who could become successful innovators drop out of science at an early age.

How to Teach Innovation: The best and perhaps only way to teach innovation is to engage students in the process of innovation. The revolution in low-cost and open-source rapid prototyping tools has greatly facilitated efforts to teach innovation (e.g. http://printrbot.com, https://www.arduino.cc, https://www.raspberrypi.org).

For example, students use Rice University’s maker space to develop technologies that improve neonatal survival in sub-Saharan Africa (http://www.sciencemag.org/content/336/6080/430.summary). Design challenges come from clinicians practicing in low-resource settings, and multi-disciplinary teams of physicians, engineers, and scientists mentor the students as they develop their technologies. Using this collaborative model, Rice students have designed more than 100 novel technologies; several of them have been commercialized and implemented at the country level where they have changed the standard of care, and more are in the pipeline.

When they are given real-world challenges and the tools to brainstorm, prototype, and evaluate solutions, students experience the value of science in action and begin to see themselves as inventors. Emily Johnson, an undergraduate Bioengineering student who participated in a design-based course and implementation internship in Africa, reflected, “When I got to Malawi to demonstrate the pulse oximeter I had worked on all semester at Rice, my perspective changed. Seeing patients in need of a technology gave me motivation to invent a better solution—it wasn’t a proof-of-concept, or just a grade—it was real people needing diagnosis, and I knew I could make an impact.”

Why Teach Innovation? Last June, the White House hosted the nation’s first Maker Fair (https://www.whitehouse.gov/nation-of-makers), calling on educators to dramatically expand the number of students that have the opportunity to become makers. Our data show that students who have opportunities to participate in authentic scientific research and design experiences are much more likely to persist in science - and the effects are greatest for women and under-represented minority students.

Now is the time for scientists and innovators to join with science educators to ensure that we teach science in a way that supports a future generation of Janssen awardees.

rebecca_richardsRebecca Richards-Kortum is a Professor at the Malcolm Gillis University’s Department of Bioengineering. She is also the Director for Rice 360° at Rice University’s Institute for Global Health and a member of the Dr. Paul Janssen Award Selection Committee