Want meaningful innovation? Start kids early

by Melanie Baker

Kitchener - A man whose grandfather had Parkinson’s disease becomes a doctor – a neuromuscular specialist. A woman whose mother had breast cancer becomes a post-doctoral cancer researcher. These are only two people, and their relatives’ diseases might not have had any influence on their career choices. Or perhaps they did. I know both of them, but have never actually asked.

Watching loved ones struggle or suffer is a powerful motivator. It doesn’t have to be anything that dire or dramatic for us to have skin in the game and strong motivation to make a difference, though.

These 12-year-olds developed an app to help Alzheimer’s sufferers recall the identities of loved ones, after one’s grandfather developed the disease. It’s not the kind of thing that will make anybody rich, or have a billion potential users (one hopes). But that doesn’t matter. The important parts are that they had strong motivation to succeed; they learned a lot in making it happen; and they’re helping people.

Further to my previous column’s theme of getting outside the tech bubble, I am a big fan of this idea of teaching kids (or anyone, really) using strong incentives like the ones mentioned. Certainly the medical and health-care fields seem like fertile fields for such innovation, especially with the massive Baby Boomer cohort not getting any younger.

Kids have natural curiosity, drive and optimism that come from not knowing they can’t do something. (Or having been told they can’t, or it’s too hard, or no one will buy it, or…) When their project is their idea and results from some strong personal motivation, like helping grandpa, or a friend, or their whole class, the possibilities are nearly endless.

When we spend too much time in “the bubble,” the concept of what represents a good idea becomes skewed. As does want vs. need, and what constitutes a good return on investment (be that time, person-hours, money, etc.)

I think this is something we can help nip in the bud early by using a focus on helping others, as well as personal motivators, in teaching kids. It has the potential to get them invested right from the get-go; it stimulates their creativity, drive and focus; it introduces them to complex problems and widely differing audiences and solutions; and it can help get them used to collaborating. (Who among us can honestly say we love group work projects?)

Could they end up as Silicon Valley stereotypes, pumping out Kickstarter campaigns and fizzled-out apps anyway? Sure. But at the same time, just take a look at how many entrepreneurs come from families with entrepreneurial backgrounds. What kids get used to as they grow up tends to stick.

Imagine a generation of kids taking the tech field by storm after growing up and learning that other way. Well-educated, with a broader understanding of the world, aware of their privilege, and primed to use their skills to make themselves useful and explore in the best ways.

A world where iTunes’ supposed 1,100-plus fart apps were replaced by apps for grandpas with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, or moms with cancer, or kids with special needs.

I like it when a HuffPo feel-good piece sparks my imagination regarding the tech sphere. It doesn’t cancel out the ones highlighting sexism, racism, elitism and wasteful frivolity, but it’s something. The leaders of tomorrow aren’t just the kids one sees on cringe-worthy “reality” TV.

Now, if we can just get parents to stop complaining about the new Ontario sex-ed curriculum long enough to get them on board with overhauling STEM to make this future a reality. How hard could it be?

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