American teens are confident they can invent solutions to some of the world's pressing challenges, such as protecting and restoring the natural environment, but more than half feel unprepared for careers in technology and engineering, the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index has found this year.
The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, which gauges Americans' attitudes toward invention and innovation, also found there is an important need for more project-based learning in high schools.
Nearly three out of four American teens (72 percent) believe technological inventions or innovations can solve some of our pressing environmental issues within the next decade, including global warming, water pollution and fossil fuel depletion. Nearly two-thirds of teens (64 percent) are confident they could invent some of these solutions. This contrasts with only 38 percent of adults who believe they could invent something to help protect and restore the natural environment. Of those adults, more than half are 18-24 years old.
This inventive confidence among teens spans ethnic groups and gender: Approximately three-quarters of Asian teens (73 percent) and Hispanic teens (75 percent) believe they could invent something to protect and restore the natural environment. In addition, approximately two-thirds of African-American teens (61 percent), Caucasian teens (64 percent) and teen girls (64 percent) share this belief.
“Today's teens are inheriting our society's environmental challenges, so their confidence and optimism that the problems are solvable is promising and exciting,” said Josh Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a non-profit organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology whose mission is to recognize outstanding inventors, encourage sustainable new solutions to real-world problems, and enable and inspire young people to pursue creative lives and careers through invention. “However, we owe our youth the tools they will need to solve these challenges.”
The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found that more than half of American teens (59 percent) do not believe their high school is preparing them adequately for a career in technology and engineering. The disparity is more pronounced among some groups historically under-represented in these fields. Nearly two-thirds of African-American teens (64 percent) and teen girls (67 percent) believe they are not prepared in school for these careers.
“Learning to invent is really no different than learning to throw a touchdown pass or play the trombone,” said Schuler, noting that 40 percent of the teens who are most confident in their ability to invent are most likely to believe their high school is preparing them for a career in technology or engineering. “It takes practice. Students need the opportunity to get their hands dirty and invent,” he said. “Generally speaking, there's not enough ‘learning by doing' taking place in today's high schools, and our survey found that students recognize this.”
A vast majority of teens (79 percent) believe there is value in hands-on, project-based science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and learning in high school. The same percentage of teens also believes more funding is needed for these types of programs.
“Support for new approaches in STEM education needs to start from the top,” added Schuler, noting that the Lemelson-MIT Invention Index found that nearly one-third of American adults (30 percent) were unable to identify a presidential candidate who they feel has the most effective plan for improving this type of education in high schools. “Our nation's proficiency in STEM education is an important issue to an overwhelming majority of people – 94 percent of adults and 80 percent of teens believe the U.S. needs to be more proficient. As we enter an election year, we hope to see increased attention and clarity from candidates around these issues.”
In an era of tighter school budgets and greater emphasis on standardized tests, adding experiential learning opportunities to high school science and math courses may seem daunting. However, established programs and outside grant funding can help supplement formal classroom education and give students opportunities to apply their textbook learning to the real world. Lemelson-MIT InvenTeams (www.inventeams.org), for example, offers grants up to $10,000 for teams of high school students and their teachers to identify a problem and invent a technological solution to it.