Good design needs to focus on the end user; as educators our end users are the students in front of us every day. So, who is in your classroom? They are members of the most connected generation in history. They generate and have access to information at an exponential rate. They are not limited by any boundaries and they are culturally more diverse than any preceding generation. They are concerned about global issues, particularly sustainability. They are, as Goldman Sachs points in a demographic study, “citizens of the 3rd generation of the Internet” – the Internet of Things – a highly connected, often borderless environment. And, most importantly, they face a future that we are hopelessly unable to predict. Many of the innovators the future will depend are hidden in plain sight in the classrooms they occupy every day.
Let’s look at a true story of four 21st century innovators. These four college students were sharing an apartment in Boston and they were soon to graduate from 4 different universities. One night they were listening to “old school” vinyl and their turntable gave out. So they went on a search of a new one and discovered that they had two choices – a very cheap, “retro” looking decorative item (around $100) and a very expensive, electronically connected model ($1000+). Being audiophiles was secondary to being poor college students, so they had a problem. Eventually they found a used model similar to the broken one and kept spinning their tunes.
They all graduated from their very prestigious schools and set out to conquer the “real” world. One was a finance major, one was a mechanical engineer, one was a painting major, with a very useful minor in sculpting and one majored in music theory, guitar, (and baseball). Off they went to their jobs, only to find out that life wasn’t exactly the way they thought it would be. None of them was very happy. The finance guy worked for a company that “cleaned up” staffs after takeovers and so he spent a lot of time firing people. The mechanical engineer did not want to work for a big company and liked working with his hands; internships and job offers from Silicon Valley held no appeal for him and he ended up settling for work at a small drafting firm. The music major delivered pizza and worked for a moving company to pay the bills and got a dream job as an assistant baseball coach. And the artist went to work as furniture designer’s assistant, but she mainly ended up babysitting the designer’s daughter.
One night when they got together again, they had an idea!! More people were discovering vinyl – so their dream of a high-quality, affordable turntable seemed to have some potential. They did some research and started proto-typing and attempted to get some grant funding and backing. No luck! But most of the feedback they received was positive so they kept refining their ideas. They all kept working at their jobs, but they were still unhappy. They kept focusing and reassessing their design ideas. They went back to the proverbial drawing board and carefully defined their problem – high-quality sound at a low cost. They researched, designed, and prototyped some more. They developed a simple turntable based on a unique coupling system between the platter and the motor and started to think about crowd-funding the idea with a Kickstarter campaign. They had nothing to lose. So they worked on a prototype to show function, developed a company and product name, and designed a logo. They set about producing a cool video for KickStarter, all while doing their other jobs.
They were a committed bunch and despite working for a living, they got their KickStarter video made and edited it multiple times. It showcased a partially functioning turntable that looked good. When their KickSarter campaign debuted in January of 2013, their goal was to raise $60,000 in 6 weeks. They quickly raised $250,000!! Why? Because their product and, more importantly, their design process, was well-engineered. They had paid careful attention to the primary constraint of cost, and the driving criteria of high quality sound and good, clean design. And they knew their market; they were the end user. But now they confronted a whole new set of problems. They had no idea how to proceed and make timely delivery on so many promised turntables. So now they had to engineer a production process.
Their funding success was very much tied to another feature of engineering design- the advantage of working as a team, tapping into a wide range of talents, and expertise. They succeeded due to the synergy of teamwork. Our mechanical engineering friend could design and refine the motor and drive system, the money guy could figure out how to map out and secure needed financial support, the musician could rate the quality of the product, and the artist made sure it all looked good. Try an engineering project in your classroom and watch some of the same synergistic effects develop. Students who often feel they have no aptitude for science may have a good eye for design; the quiet student may be an excellent systems-thinker, watching and weighing all of the options and impacts; the student who is always talking may be a gifted marketing person. Everyone has a chance to shine and students quickly come to see and appreciate the value of collaboration. It is a much more realistic way to work than the isolated model we often expect for student work. We know we are not one-size-fits-all but many characteristics of modern education still embrace that non-customized assembly line mentality.
Back to our young entrepreneurs – they had to face the challenges of finding a space for manufacturing, a way to source all of the component parts, and the daunting prospect of assembling several hundred turntables by the fall of 2013. They also faced the unexpected need to of plan how to grow since orders continued to come in after the KickStarter campaign. They were able to rise to the challenge because they were persistent, resilient, and agile; traits that are often discouraged by our focus on test results and the goal of finding the “one right answer”. They had to construct their own understanding and they engineered their own future. In those few months, they learned an amazing number of lessons and they learned them all by doing it. They shipped their first turntable in early September of 2013 and they haven’t looked back.
Our young business major handles all of the finances and a complex system of inputs and outputs. The engineer is truly the brains behind the operation and tinkers and designs accessory parts and improvements to the current design, all while keeping the mantra of simple mechanics and high quality sound in focus. Our musician friend has shown a remarkable skill for organizing inventory, supply, and the manufacturing process, along with an ability to articulate the technical reasons why vinyl is better. Plus he gets to keep and play all of his musical instruments in the office as part of the ambience. And our artist, a highly empathetic observer of human behavior, handles all of the manufacturing personnel issues, paying particular attention to the ergonomics of their workstations and the appearance of the workspace. She is responsible for the collaborative workplace atmosphere and has even color-coded processes and parts, resulting in a gain in overall throughput. There are healthy snacks available all day, workers get free T Shirts and sweatshirts, and every day is “bring your dog to work” day. They have had highly positive reviews in Rolling Stone, Wired, Inc. and a number of other magazines, including some audio industry publications. They have shipped over 10,000 turntables in less than 2 years and they have even had the chance to “party with rock stars”. They have moved to a bigger space, have over 15 employees, and are exploring new opportunities for growth. They utilize employee feedback and continuous improvement models to insure that everyone has a meaningful role in the company. And although they may not change the world, they have changed lives. They have created a workplace that is happy and are very proud to have given other people jobs. They have created their own futures.
There are lessons for educators to learn from these young innovators. Their product was engineered by students who were willing to make mistakes and who were confident that they could solve problems. They all had vision, curiosity, and creativity; and they refused to abandon those traits. They relied on research, empathy, and connections; they kept simplicity in mind, had clear goals, and never gave up. They followed a process of identifying the problem, researching and observing to develop solutions, and iterative prototyping and testing to optimize results. No one taught them how to design a turntable, but they each brought their own skill set to the problem and collaborated to find a solution. They are the engineers of their own future.
Would you have noticed these innovators and entrepreneurs in your science classroom? Probably not. The engineer excelled at physics in high school but was very quiet and probably would not have been noticed. The business major did pretty well in physics because he was good at plugging in numbers and getting a correct answer. But he did not really enjoy it. The music major liked some physics, sound was especially cool, but really liked baseball better. And as for our art major … well she viewed numbers as interesting symbols and she barely passed physics. But her teacher could see from her drawings (really artistic renderings) that she understood something and gave her the benefit of the doubt. No, I don’t think most of us would have noticed any of these innovators in our science classes. But, most likely, there are young entrepreneurs like them in each of your classes. Hidden in plain sight.
As educators, we need to give their abilities value in terms of the world they will inherit, not in terms of the textbooks and models we grew up with. All young people have natural vision, curiosity, and creativity; we need to encourage it, not limit it. They can succeed by a combination of research, empathy, connected learning, and teamwork. We cannot anticipate or hope to teach them all that they will need to know, but we can help them to develop the skills they will need for lifelong learning. Application leads to mastery and real meaning. It is clear that what they DO in the classroom is far more important than what you teach.
Abraham Lincoln once said that “the best way to predict the future is to create it”. We don’t know what talent is hidden in our classrooms and we clearly have no idea of what lies ahead in this exponentially changing world. But as teachers, we have the power to create the future every day, in every class. We must engineer a path to understanding for all of our students. They need to leave our classrooms ready to collaborate, ready to solve challenging problems, and ready to live in the future that they will create.