It’s widely believed our ability to innovate and prepare students for careers in science and technology will be key factors in keeping the U.S. competitive in the global economy. Yet, nearly three out of five American teens (59 percent) do not believe their high school is preparing them adequately for a career in technology or engineering, according to the 2008 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index, an annual survey that gauges Americans’ attitudes toward invention and innovation.
The disparity is more pronounced among some groups historically underrepresented in these fields. Roughly two-thirds of African-American teens (64 percent) and teen girls (67 percent) believe they are not being prepared well in school for these careers.
The survey’s news is not all bad: It reveals enormous optimism among America’s youth–provided educators are savvy enough to change the way their schools teach.
Nearly three out of four American teens (72 percent) believe technological inventions or innovations can solve some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues within the next decade, including global warming, water pollution, and fossil-fuel depletion. And nearly two-thirds of teens (64 percent) are confident they could invent some of these solutions.
This contrasts with the number of adults who believe they could invent something to help protect and restore the natural environment (38 percent). Of those adults, more than half are 18 to 24 years old.
“Learning to invent is really no different than learning to throw a touchdown pass or play the trombone,” said Josh Schuler, executive director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, a nonprofit initiative 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.
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 Schuler. “However, we owe our youth the tools they will need to solve these challenges.”
Schuler noted 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,” he said. “As we enter an election year, we hope to see increased attention and clarity from candidates around these issues.”
The 2008 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index adult survey was conducted from Dec. 13 to 16. A nationally representative sample of 1,013 adults was used, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3.2 percentage points. The 2008 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index teen survey was conducted from Dec. 14 to 16. A nationally representative sample of 1,004 teens was used, and the margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.