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Mentoring an Innovative Culture

March 29, 2012

Electric car battery of alternating cells

On the United States political scene, we have seen a polarized conversation around our country’s energy policy.  Drill or don’t drill for more oil, build or don’t build pipelines from Canada, support or don’t support more nuclear power plants, invest or don’t invest in more alternative energy resources, and global warming is related to human energy consumption or it’s a myth.  Do we have a visionary energy policy in the United States that will reconcile this polarized political landscape and give the next generation a solid foundation to build upon?

I am not the person to answer this question, but as a lifelong educator I do know that the answer will come from an educated, innovative, and determined group of young people who are capable of developing a vision and leverage our creative potential to solve this complex set of problems.  I began thinking about this idea and connecting it to K-12 education after viewing a recent TED talks that I thoroughly enjoyed.

It was a talk about energy storage devices by Donald Sadoway, a professor at MIT.  He shared a vision for solving the electricity storage issue that keeps many scientists and politicians from believing in renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, as viable competitors to coal, oil and natural gas. (see below)

Here are some of the highlights from his talk about liquid-metal battery.

Electricity demand must be in equilibrium with electricity supply.

With a giant battery, we could respond to the intermittency that prevents wind and solar from contributing to the grid.

I want to go full spectrum and how developing this technology we have discovered some heterdoxies that can serve as lessons for innnovation-ideas worth spreading.

And you know if we are going to get this country out of this current energy situation, we can’t just conserve our way out, we can just drill our way out, we can’t just bomb our way out, we are going to do it the old-fashioned American way, we will have to invent our way out, working together.

We need to think about the problem differently, we need to think big and we need to think cheap.

Let’s invent to the price point of the electricity market.

If you want to make something dirt cheap, make it out of dirt.  Preferably, dirt that is locally sourced.

From listening to his talk, it is clear that Dr. Sadoway is someone who thinks outside the box.  He looked for solutions to the problem that interested him using associational thinking (Innovators DNA), reaching out to different fields for ideas on how to make a different battery storage technology that could address the huge demand during an intermittency episode.

In order to adopt a fresh perspective, Dr. Sadoway looked for inspiration from uncommon sources.

Alessandro Volta-for insights into the creation of a simple battery

Charles Hall and Paul Heroult-for ideas on liquid-metal electricity technology

Dmitri Mendeleev-for ideas on the right combination of metals for the battery

Dr. Sadoway explains his breakthrough idea with a relatively simple blackboard lesson, low tech but effective.  His uncommon idea involved using two very uncommon metals in a battery that runs at  high temperature with a molten salt bridge.

Sadoway giving a blackboard lesson his new battery.To build a research team that could collaborate with him to solve the problem, Dr. Sadoway goes to the laboratory and brings on students who he mentors.  He points out that the students have a reason to be there–they want a Ph.D.  They are bright, eager problem solvers that are willing to take risks and follow his dream.  In the process, they become “student leaders” who experiment with ideas, design potential solutions, and prototype their designs.  These students learn and grow through Dr. Sadoway’s mentoring, while simultaneously contributing to the resolution of a challenging problem that they own.

For me, the lesson from Dr. Sadoway’s short story is that as K-12 educators we have to be sure our students are prepared to be Dr. Sadoway’s students.  Here are qualities that I think his students possess:

  • People with a growth mindset
  • People who enjoy engaging in inquiry and discovery
  • People willing to take a risk.
  • People who can think outside the box.
  • People who can make connections across disciplines
  • People who are persistent
  • People who love to experiment
  • People who enjoying designing and building things

If I’m right in my assessment, then some of the questions that remain for K-12 educators are these.

  • Are we preparing our students to leave our classrooms with these skills?
  • Does our traditional, siloed curriculum help students develop these skills?
  • Does our traditional curriculum and ways of instruction help students to become “connectors of ideas” across disciplines?
  • Does our focus on “high-stakes,” multiple choice assessments that require “low-level” thinking on the part of our students, prepare them for the challenges problems they will encounter?
  • Do our classrooms model the type of collaborative interaction that is necessary to construct innovative solutions to complex problems like battery storage?

If the answer to these, and other questions, is YES, then we are on the right track.  If the answer is NO, then we have lots of innovative work to do to change what we teach and the way we teach it.  My experience tells me that there are few students coming out of most schools that would be prepared to partner with Dr. Sadoway.

It seems to me that Dr. Sadoway and his students did not need lots of book knowledge about how batteries worked, but they needed the capability to see connections across different fields of study.  They needed the associational thinking skills to make the connections and do something creative with them.  They needed to tap into a passion that stimulated their potential to be creative.  Finally, they needed a mentor who cared about them and challenged them to reach for the unimaginable.

If you think that your teaching is not preparing students to enter the world of innovative thinkers like Dr. Sadoway, then accept the challenge to consider steps you might take to change something tomorrow that will make your classroom a more engaging place to learn.

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