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Securing the Future
Innovation and the White Coat Economy
The fourth-floor walk-up on a crowded inner-city street might not be the first place you would look for a future scientist whose work will create American jobs. But something special about the education of children in Union City, New Jersey, drew me there to see Robert and his family in 1998. Five years earlier, in 1993, Union City had created Project Explore at the Christopher Columbus Middle School, the latest incarnation of a run-down parochial school that the public school district had purchased recently. The Columbus name was a deliberate signal that discovery was the mission. Robert was one of the fortunate first beneficiaries of new technology-enabled teaching that emphasized team-based exploration, not rote learning or received wisdom. And he was on a path to be among the scientists and engineers who could maintain America’s lead in innovation.
Just across the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan, Union City was then the most densely populated city in the United States, with 42,000 residents per square mile. In the schools, 92 percent of the students were Latino and 75 percent did not speak English at home. The city was known as one of the nation’s most impoverished communities, with 30 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. School buildings had broken panes of glass, windows that didn’t open, one set of encyclopedias in the mostly empty libraries, and many fewer textbooks than children, so the students had to share. But it was assumed for years, the superintendent had told me, that these urban children were not capable of learning, anyway. Robert and his 134 classmates, who started with Project Explore in seventh grade, would prove those low expectations wrong. And as they continued through school, they would tell their stories to President Bill Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, congressional leaders such as Newt Gingrich, and distinguished visitors from around the nation and the world.
I was there on a gloomy winter day in 1998 with a camera crew. After climbing the stairs to Robert’s apartment, I passed through the narrow sliver of rooms—kitchen, parents’ bedroom, and sister’s bedroom, each opening into the next, train-style—to reach Robert’s computer command central at the end of the line. The state-of-the-art desktop computer, which the family could never have come close to affording, was a donation from Project Explore’s corporate partner. I perched on the edge of Robert’s narrow bed while the animated high school junior showed off his Web prowess: the sites he had built and the research ideas that he had generated and was enthusiastically pursuing with other students. He was also well into his college applications.
Later we sipped coffee and tea with his beaming and hospitable parents around the small kitchen table, which doubled as living room and guest seating. Robert’s parents had moved to Union City from Central America a decade earlier, never dreaming that their son would be part of a significant educational innovation. His mother was a hairdresser and his father a skilled factory worker, and until Project Explore, both had been taking any other work they could get so they could save enough to leave Union City. The thought crossed my mind that Robert’s mother’s employment was undoubtedly more secure than his father’s, as manufacturing jobs were starting to flee America and the alarm was sounded that those with poor educations would be stuck in low-wage service jobs. I also thought that Robert’s parents were wise to promote his dreams of studying science and someday starting his own technology-based business.
Today, Robert and his Project Explore peers, many of them once destined to be high school dropouts, are college graduates. Some have master’s degrees; others are enrolled in Ph.D. programs. They have attended Yale, MIT, and numerous other top-tier colleges. Overall, the number of Union City students enrolled in highly ranked colleges grew tenfold when the Explore students finished high school, and now every student is expected to be on a college track. Their teachers were appropriately surprised and impressed. “I couldn’t believe these low-performing kids were producing honors-level work,” one told us.
When Union City began to plan its remarkable experiment in school reform in 1989, the digital age was barely under way, and the district was the third-worst-performing in the state, failing on forty-four out ofifty-two indicators. But enlightened public offcials saw the potential for innovation to transform their community. Mayor Robert Menendez, who was later elected to Congress and then the U.S. Senate, brought to the new school superintendent, Thomas Highton, an advocate of collaborative learning, a potential partnership with Bell Atlantic (now merged into Verizon). Bell wanted a test site to understand the potential of DSL networks; Union City’s density made it feasible, and the school connection made it socially desirable. The renamed Columbus School was wired, and 135 entering seventh-graders and their teachers were given home computers and Internet connectivity. This also gave Highton a tool to use to prod teachers to adopt new collaborative and theme-based learning that stressed student research.
Bell Atlantic’s biggest fear was a lack of digital content to send over the networks the company was testing in Union City. Luckily, the coming of the World Wide Web in 1993 solved that problem. The second-biggest fear was that the poor Hispanic inner-city children would steal or damage the computers the company was donating to them. But on the contrary, the gifts were treated so respectfully that students like Robert learned to repair computers for other students rather than bring problems to the attention of school offcials. The fees Robert earned went straight to his college fund.
Technology was the catalyst for change, and a public-private partnership got it moving, but teachers, students, parents, administrators, and corporate partners attribute the success of Robert and his peers to three elements that reflect bedrock American principles:
The students were launched on a journey of discovery, crossing new frontiers. They were taught to be scientists, creating and testing hypotheses and exploring new arenas for discovery. Nothing was off-limits. Even the devout Catholics in the group felt that they could raise questions and poke at scientific frontiers. Yet while feeling free to reject orthodoxy, the students were unfailingly polite and respectful.
They were taught that knowledge did not end with the pages of a book or with the limits of their teachers’ brains. They worked in self-managed teams. Marjorie Zacagna, then head of the English department at Emerson High School, where the Explore students went after middle school (taking principal Bob Fazio with them), recalled: “I was running late to class, walked into the room, and all my kids were already busy working with their collaborative learning groups in front of the computers. In twenty-four years of teaching, I had never seen anything like it.”
They became teachers themselves. Margaret Mead once said that America was the world’s first example of a culture in which the young taught the old—in which children often learned new ways before their parents and passed them on. Union City’s version of children teaching their parents was called Parent University. In training sessions held before school, after school, and on weekends, all to accommodate working families, the children taught their parents computer skills. Parents brought those skills to their workplaces and testified to the positive impact on their jobs and earnings. Within the schools, Project Explore students shared their knowledge and computers with other students, changing the culture and achievement levels of the whole school.
In 2003, we visited Union City again, in Thomas Highton’s last week as school superintendent before his retirement. In 1989, when he started, Union City had one of New Jersey’s highest student-transfer rates. Now the schools were so popular that they suffered from overcrowding; at Emerson High, even the faculty dining room was turned into a classroom. A National Science Foundation grant helped support technology internships, college visits, and ventures such as Project Smart, which paid students to design websites with new curricula for the schools. “The technology has made it cool for these urban children to be smart!” exclaimed an Emerson teacher.
This success story is about an educational innovation using a technological innovation that is spawning innovators likely to produce further innovations—a virtuous chain and a necessity for securing America’s future in a highly competitive world. The last I heard, Robert was planning to apply his tech skills to health care, specializing in biomedical engineering.
I can’t predict what Robert or anyone else will discover, but I can predict that the awakening of scientific imagination in young people will produce many discoveries holding promise for our future. Here’s an environmental example. Under an MIT-sponsored program called InvenTeam, a group of chemistry students at New Hampshire’s Merrimack High School began to develop a solar-powered biodiesel processor to produce clean-burning biodiesel fuel from discarded vegetable oil from local restaurants. They undertook tests of whether this biodiesel fuel could run school buses. And vowing to waste nothing, the students made soap out of glycerin by-products from the processing to sell to raise money for their project.
A nation whose prosperity depends on innovation should attract more people to the innovation game and forge close connections between innovation and better lives for all citizens.
American Inventors and American Principles
Clearly, innovation is back in the buzz. Never a fad, but always in or out of fashion, innovation is currently top of mind for government policy, business strategy, and even pop culture.
If you have any doubts about the pop culture side of this, tune in to American Inventor, the prime-time television show from the producers of American Idol. Inventors of everything from “the wacky to the heartwarming” (its website says) can compete to invent the next Rubik’s Cube or Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which might be a restroom door clip, an umbrella that’s easier to close, an electronic word game to teach reading skills, or a double-traction bicycle. Finalists get $50,000 to develop their product while competing for the $1 million prize and the chance to get rich by finding investors for their idea.
American Inventor is just a caricature, especially compared to a search for truly significant discoveries such as search engines, cancer cures, or hybrid cars. Still, invention and discovery, pop or esoteric, enables America to produce opportunity for a good life.
This chapter offers an agenda for ensuring that America continues to lead through innovation. Our economic security depends on this. If we are to create jobs when other countries have cheaper labor, we must have smarter labor, and we must be the leaders in new discoveries that we use to generate jobs in America. Even our future homeland security depends on innovation to make us energy-independent in an environmentally friendly way—innovation such as the development of alternative energy sources and more energy-efficient technologies.
Innovation thrives on traditional American values of openness, tolerance, broad-mindedness, and inquisitiveness. It stems from investments in fertile environments in which ideas can grow and people can gain the skills to imagine and develop them. However important in the past, this is even more important for the future. The central driver of the economy, I propose, has already moved from manufacturing to services, from blue collar to white collar. Now the economy is starting to shift from white collar to white coat—that is, creating value from endeavors in which discovery and invention, particularly in the life sciences but also in other areas of technology, play a larger role. But I will also argue that, in recent years, America’s strength in innovation has been jeopardized by attempts to close minds, as evidenced by the stem cell research controversy and by failures to invest in critical educational institutions at every level that produce scientific talent. I will end with a proposal for a national effort to enlist schools, hospitals, and communities as innovation zones, much like the Union City experiment. We must bring every part of America into the innovation mainstream.
Open Markets, Open Borders, and, Above All, Open Minds
The 2000s have brought a variety of economic worries—as every decade does. The “what keeps me up at night” list for the new century includes rising dependence for energy on unstable and troubled parts of the world, continuing high and escalating costs of occupying civil-war-torn Iraq, ongoing terrorism uncertainties, a ballooning federal deficit mortgaging the future, and the increasing cost of higher education that puts college out of reach for many families, eroding one of the key foundations for prosperity. There are fears that India will steal high-tech jobs and that China will conquer manufacturing. In some areas, American job creation has been anemic, while India cannot find talent fast enough—Indian out-sourcers to whom American companies outsource work are now outsourcing some of that work back to American engineers in America, if you can follow that ironic chain.
The best way to alleviate American worries is by supporting the foundations of American resilience and job creation: open markets, open borders, and open minds. The first two are fraught with caveats and sometimes require modest fences to protect our interests. The third is more basic and more important in the long run. Open minds embrace new ideas that build innovations.
If there is a magic bullet that creates jobs, it is innovation—new ideas that open new business (and life) opportunities. Fresh ideas are the lifeblood of job-creating entrepreneurs. Innovation is America’s strength in global competition; we are not the lowest-cost nation but the one with the best and latest innovations. Innovation also protects against uncomfortable change. Wherever brainpower is nurtured through investments in education and scientific research, new industries arrive as old ones disappear. In the higher-education-intensive Northeast, textile and shoe manufacturing were replaced by computer manufacturing, then software replaced hardware, and today health sciences herald a new innovation wave. In earlier research, I identified three prototypical ways that regions can succeed in a global economy: as thinkers (dreaming up new products or processes), makers (handling manufacturing or logistics), or traders (doing the deals and moving the goods that connect regions). More than ever, the American economy depends on thinkers to create the well-paid jobs of the future.
Thinking about new ideas through basic research is an essential component of national competitiveness. Federal funding can produce breakthroughs that only later are commercialized by private-sector entrepreneurs; the Internet derived from the defense-related federal Arpanet. Cisco CEO John Chambers has given many an impassioned plea for a federal initiative to get the country wired for broadband—an effort akin to rural electrification in the 1930s (which brought modern opportunities to every corner of the country and readied the nation for industrial production), the interstate highway system in the 1950s, or the space program in the 1960s. It hasn’t happened yet. Of course, other industrialized and emerging countries spend large amounts for government-sponsored projects, and those do not always bring expected results; French-government-subsidized Airbus has been out-innovated and out-competed by Boeing, the American private-sector behemoth. America’s openness to mobility of people as well as products produces advantages. America won World War II with the help of technologies from top scientists fleeing repressive Nazi Germany.