Developing an Innovation Workforce While Increasing K-12 STEM Engagement and Learning: Integrating Innovation Thinking Skills with Mandated Content


Lucinda Presley¸ MAIS, Executive Director, ICEE Success Foundation


David Delgado, Imagine Mars Lead, Mars Public Engagement Team, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, US
Deborah Gaston, Director of Education, National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington, DC, US
Rob Gorbet, Ph.D., P.Eng., Associate Professor, Centre for Knowledge Integration, University of Waterloo, Canada
Alex Hesse, Director, The Leonardo, US
Mary Hobbs, Ph.D., Coordinator for Science Initiatives, Texas Regional Collaboratives, University of Texas at Austin, US
Carol LaFayette, Associate Professor, Department of Visualization, Texas A&M University, US
Linda Scott, Ed.D., Executive Director, School Science and Technology, Weiss School of Natural Sciences, Rice University, US
Dara Williams Rossi, Ph.D., Director of Undergraduate Programs and Assistant Clinical Professor, Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, Southern Methodist University, US


According to a number of nationally-recognized researchers, authors, educators, businesses, governmental panels, and studies, the United States’ future place in the global economy could be significantly impacted by the degree to which today’s students are taught to think innovatively (Friedman, 2009, 2011; Florida, 2003; Robinson, 2011; Zhao, 2009; President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010; National Science Board, 2010; Gardner, 2008; Bransford, 2000; Lemelson-MIT, 2003). They point out that, in order to be competitive in this rapidly-changing world, students in all demographics must learn to integrate vital 21st century innovation thinking skills with science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) learning.

These thinking skills include: conceptual and visual/design thinking, creative and critical thinking, problem-finding and problem-solving, collaboration, and communication. The integration of these skills with science, technology, engineering, and math concepts promotes students’ abilities to problem-solve and design innovative solutions. (Starko, 2003; Cropley, 2003; National Academy of Sciences, 2002; P21, 2012).

While teaching the mandated standards in the current test-driven education environment is very important, it also is vital to develop ways to integrate these important innovation thinking skills with the mandated, standards-based learning (National Education Association, n.d.). Although the current test-driven culture provides some roadblocks, it also provides opportunities to develop ways to deeply integrate these vital thinking skills with content delivery. Opportunities include: state, national, and international collaborations among institutions, disciplines, and forms of content delivery. These integrated disciplines include the fine arts, science, technology, engineering, language arts, math, and humanities. Forms of delivery can include the integration of formal and informal education methodologies with higher education and technology partners. Successful integration of these disciplines and approaches in this white paper’s authors’ work offers interesting opportunities for further exploration. These help inform the paper’s concluding calls for action. 


Defining Creative and Innovation Thinking

While the terms creative and innovation thinking are widely used, it is important to relate and distinguish the two. For the purposes of this paper, the approach developed by one of the world’s leading scientific experts on creativity, R. Keith Sawyer, will be used. He points out that individual creativity is a new mental combination of thoughts that are communicated (Sawyer, 2012). He adds that innovation is the development of a product that is judged to be novel, appropriate, useful, or valuable by a knowledgeable group (Sawyer, 2012).

The Need

Global Need: According to a number of authors and studies, a nation’s success in today’s growing global economy will depend on its ability to innovate (Friedman and Mandelbaum, 2011; Robinson, 2011; Florida, 2003; President’s Council, 2010; National Academies of Science and Engineering, National Institute of Health, 2010). For example, renowned international author and education advisor Sir Ken Robinson points out that, in the current social and economic revolution, governments, companies, and many other entities are emphasizing the essential need for creativity and innovation thinking. He adds that the global culture that most effectively trains its students to process information innovatively will be the dominant culture (Robinson, 2011). This phenomenon is driven, according to acclaimed economics authors Thomas Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, Ph.D., by globalization and the technology revolution. Friedman and Mandelbaum add that education is now an economic issue, making it imperative that education systems integrate creative/innovation thinking with the mandated basics (Friedman and Mandelbaum, 2011). Additionally, a 2011 General Electric survey of 1,000 business executives in 12 countries found that 92% of the executives believed that innovation is the main driver of a competitive national economy (General Electric, 2012).

National Need: Sir Ken Robinson’s assertion that a nation’s position in the global economy will be influenced by its ability to innovate (Robinson, 2011) is echoed by the National Science Board in the U.S. It emphasizes that the US needs STEM innovators (National Science Board, 2010). This is echoed by a 2010 report generated by the presidents of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and National Institute of Medicine, which states that for the US to remain economically competitive, it must generate scientists and engineers who can produce “creative, imaginative, leading-edge work”, in short, innovation. (National Academy of Sciences, 2010). Additionally, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology points out that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education will determine whether the US remains an international leader (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, 2010).

Prominent sociologist Richard Florida concurs that creativity is a key factor in a nation’s economic success (Florida, 2003). Also, a report by the international business and research association, the Conference Board, working with the American Association of School Administrators and Americans for the Arts, found that 99% of US superintendents and 97% of US business executives rated creativity/innovation of increasing importance. These respondents concurred that education plays an important role in preparing the future innovation workforce. However, the study found that 85 % of business executives were having trouble finding the qualified innovation-thinking applicants (Lichtenberg, 2008).

Add to these mandates the need for international cooperation. Friedman advocates for global absorption of best practices and tolerance, pointing out that the global advantage will go to cultures that cooperate internationally. Friedman also suggests that today’s education should include training in the ability to think and cooperate internationally (Friedman, 2005). A case in point is the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab’s successful landing of the latest Mars Rover, Curiosity, which was designed, built, and landed with international cooperation. Additionally, Curiosity’s development was driven by creative and innovation thinking, especially the Entry-Descent-Landing phase.  According to the Jet Propulsion Lab’s Imagine Mars Project Lead, David Delgado, “Landing a rover of that size and weight had never been done before and it required a completely new approach to solving the problem.  It is this type of problem that requires the utmost of creativity because relying on the conventional approaches can’t be relied upon. This creative/innovation thinking is what we share with today’s students through the Imagine Mars Project. We take some of the same real world problems that engineers and scientists are challenged with at JPL and give them to the students, like developing solutions for human habitation of Mars. With these types of challenges, both critical thinking and creative thinking are crucial.  It is vital that today’s students learn to think creatively and innovatively so that they have the tools to take on the most demanding challenges in their future.”

Problems in Meeting the Need

Roadblocks: There is currently a diminished interest in STEM among US students, in addition to a lack of innovation thinking skills to prepare the future innovation economy workforce (President’s Council, 2010; Bronson and Merryman, 2010)

STEM Innovation: The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology points out that: 1) less than 1/3 of US eighth graders demonstrate science and math proficiency on the National Assessment of Educational Progress test; 2) there is a pervasive lack of student interest in STEM; 3) many of the most STEM-proficient students are choosing careers other than science and engineering; and 4) STEM teachers are often inadequately engaged or prepared (President’s Council, 2010). Additionally, education researcher Yong Zhao, Ph.D., says that while the US has led the world in innovation, other countries such as China are working feverishly to catch up and, if US education continues on its current trajectory, will pass the US. For, China has foregone its linear, fact-based education system for one that is promoting creative thinking, where the US is foregoing creative thinking in favor of a linear, fact-based education (Zhao, 2009).

Creative/Innovation Thinking: Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their famous Newsweek article, “The Creativity Crisis”, demonstrate that American creative thinking, a predictor of adult innovation thinking skills, has been on the decline since 1990, while other countries are increasing their creative capacity (Bronson and Merryman, 2010). They are seconded by Newsweek’s Michael Hirsch, who states that the US is now ranked the number 11 nation among Newsweek’s best countries of the world. Hirsch cites Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who states, “The country that out-educates us today will out-compete us tomorrow.” (Hirsch, 2010). He also cites a recent McKinsey and Co. study which showed that the growing education gap between the US and other leading countries could impose the “economic equivalent of a permanent national recession”(Hirsch, 2010). An MIT report on inventiveness additionally points out US education’s need for open-ended problem-solving, self-discovery, visual thinking, and learning from failure (Lemelson-MIT Program, 2003). However, teachers with whom we work often report that their students are afraid to take risks for fear of failure or because the challenge seems too great. They also point out that in today’s education environment, students have more trouble thinking visually and solving problems in a cross-curricular fashion due to lack of experience in those innovation thinking skills. They also site lack of time in the tightly-packed school curriculum schedule to work on innovation thinking skills.

Some Suggested Solutions for Meeting the Need

Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM): A number of skills and strategies have been suggested to address these creative/innovation thinking needs. The National Science Board recommends: 1) fostering such innovation thinking skills in students as engagement, curiosity, and creative problem solving; 2) engaging talent from all demographics, including underrepresented minorities and students from low-income families; 3) encouraging partnerships between such groups as K-12 schools, businesses, content developers, and researchers; 4) providing an environment that celebrates creativity and innovative thinking, regardless of demographics or geographic locale (National Science Board, 2010). The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology additionally recommends that students gain conceptual understanding and procedural fluency in addition to the science facts. That means that they must develop a deeper understanding of science concepts, integrating concepts across disciplines through the scientific processes. Specific Council recommendations include individualized and group experiences outside the classroom, such as after-school and extended-day programming. (President’s Council, 2010). This is reinforced by the new Next Generation Science Standards, which focus on integrating scientific concepts, along with math and language arts, and applying these, especially in engineering. (National Research Council, 2012). Renowned education expert Howard Gardner, Ph.D., points out that synthesis is one of the most important thinking skills for this century. He adds that two effective strategies for achieving these skills are the use of metaphors, images, themes, and the use of works of art. He promotes the integration of disciplines in which the disciplines are not just juxtaposed, but are “genuinely integrated”. This integration, he states, should provide an understanding that could not have been achieved by either discipline alone. He also promotes multiperspectivalism, pointing out that viewing a problem from different perspectives can lead to a more effective solution (Gardner, 2008).

Creative/Innovation Thinking Skills: From their research, Newsweek’s Bronson and Merryman point out that the ability to integrate concepts is crucial, especially using this skill in the divergent/convergent thinking of creative problem solving and design thinking. They also point out the important relationship of play with creative thinking (Bronson and Merryman, 2010). Friedman and Mandelbaum concur, stating that what is important today is students’ effectiveness at problem-solving, using creative and critical thinking. This is what will promote any nation’s innovation capabilities and leadership in the global economy, they add (Friedman and Mandelbaum, 2011).

Creative/Innovation Thinking Skills in Education: MIT calls for an “infusion of inventive creativity into the K-12 education” (Lemelson-MIT Program, 2003). Strategies that they include are: visual thinking, hands-on learning, experiential problem-based teacher workshops, research on the creative mind and how people learn, and a sharing of information between schools and universities (Lemelson-MIT Program, 2003).

Creative/innovation thinking skills considered important in education also have been addressed by noted researchers such as Howard Gardner, Alane Starko, A.J. Cropley, and Arthur Costa. These important skills include: inquiry-based learning, conceptual integration, knowledge transfer, collaboration, communication, arts/design thinking, problem-finding/problem-solving based on real-world problems, persistence, flexible thinking, learning from failure, metacognition. Other important thinking skills include: visual thinking, inventing, play/tinkering, and emotional engagement (Costa and Kallick, 2009; Cropley, 2003; Gardner, 2008;  Starko, 2005;  Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, 2006).

Additionally, The National Advisory Committee on Creative and Cultural Education (NACCE) study in the United Kingdom, chaired by Sir Ken Robinson, found that all children can benefit from developing their creative thinking skills. This should be a focus of education, the study stated.  It also found that creativity can be developed in all areas of the curriculum, in the sciences as well as the expressive arts. Additionally, this extensive study discovered that students can demonstrate creativity in the sciences and problem solving, as well as in music and fashion, language, designing and making, and manipulating numbers, and that some students may not be creative in one domain but show creativity across the curriculum. Approaches that it associated with creative thinking were: brainstorming, designing and making, solving problem, seeing links and connections, expressing perceptions, failure and perseverance, and collaboration (HMIE, 2006).

Knowledge Transfer and Problem-Based Learning: Knowledge transfer and problem-based learning are vital aspects of creative/innovation thinking in education that can address a number of the skills addressed above (Wiggins and McTighe, 2006). These skills have been addressed by educators and by science researchers. The Next Generation Science Standards emphasize the importance of applying crosscutting science concepts and engineering design to real-world applications (National Research Council, 2012). Knowledge transfer, in which crosscutting concepts can be integrated, is a central aspect of the Understanding by Design model promoted by Grant Wiggins, Ph.D. He points out the importance of students’ ability to adapt and transfer knowledge to the needs of the situation or the problem (Wiggins and McTighe, 2006). This model is supported by education researcher John Bransford, Ph.D., who applies this technique to STEM in pointing out that, due to the exponential increase in information, it is not as important for children to learn facts, as it is for them to learn to process this information, to make connections between ideas, and to organize the ideas around central concepts.  Transfer of knowledge between modalities is essential, he says (Bransford, 2000). A National Academy of Sciences study concurs, pointing out that “Learning with understanding is facilitated when new and existing knowledge is structured and around the major concepts and principles of the discipline” (Gollub, 2002).

This knowledge transfer includes transfer between STEM and art modalities. Walter Massey, former Director of the National Science Foundation and currently President of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, points out that one must move beyond the superficial integration of the arts and science, beyond the aesthetics and artifacts, into developing the processes that the two disciplines share, such as the importance of failure and of creative thinking and problem-solving. The arts, he says, are integral to the innovation ecosystem (Massey, 2011).

Arts Education and Content Learning: According to noted creativity researcher R. Keith Sawyer, arts education can provide unique habits of mind that may facilitate learning in other content areas. He additionally points out that when the arts are integrated with learning in other content areas, learners acquire a deeper understanding and an ability to think more flexibly using content knowledge. They also develop enhanced critical thinking and creativity, he points out (Sawyer, 2012). Particular habits of mind developed in arts education that could be studied for learning transfer include the ability to observe, envision, express, reflect, explore, engage, persist, and develop craft (Hetland et al, 2007).

Additionally, noted innovation expert Sir Ken Robinson points out that, in order to promote creative abilities, school systems throughout the world must achieve a balance between the emphases on science, technology, mathematics, and language arts and the fine arts, humanities, and physical education. He points out that each of these disciplines reflects major areas of cultural knowledge and addresses a different type of intelligence and creative thinking, thereby increasing the capacity to reach a variety of learners and develop important innovation thinking skills (Robinson, 2006).

Arts Education and Content Engagement: A study by the Chicago Arts Partners in Education found that after arts-integrated units, students showed increased interest in the content subject matter, offering the possibility of an effect on students’ cognitive growth over time, the study reports (DeMoss and Morris, 2002, in Burnaford, 2007). Additionally, arts integration research in A+ schools in Oklahoma found such effects as higher student achievement, better attendance, and decreased discipline problems (Barry, 2003, in Burnaford, 2007). A meta-analysis conducted by the renowned Critical Links study found that there is evidence for links between arts experiences and affective development driven by the interaction of physiology, cognition, and behavior (Deasy, 2002, in Burnaford, 2007). Can similar effects be found through the integration of the arts and STEM? This is a fertile area to investigate.

Visual Thinking: According to Sir Ken Robinson in Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative, scientists, like artists, often extensively use visual imagery in both formulating and expressing their ideas (Robinson, 2006). Exploring the transfer of these abilities to enhance of both visual art and science skills is another vital area of investigation.

Arts Integration: There have been a number of studies looking at the impact of arts integration on student achievement in formal education. However, there appears to be a lack of studies investigating the impact of the arts on science engagement and learning and the attendant innovation thinking in STEM, especially cognitive transfer (Burnaford, 2007).


Partnerships and Projects: ICEE Success and its state, national, and international partners have developed partnerships and projects that address the above-stated needs, problems, and recommendations. These projects integrate innovation thinking with mandated STEM learning concepts using both formal and informal learning strategies in K-12 classrooms and teacher professional development. They integrate partners from higher education, K-12 education, informal learning, the tinkering movement, NASA, business, science, engineering, technology, and the arts statewide, nationally, and internationally. Data shows that there is merit in further studying the success of these partners’ strategies. Below are listed representative applications, findings, and participant comments.

A STEAM State Partnership: In Texas, ICEE Success and its partner, SITE (Success through Innovation Thinking in Education) pilot a number of projects across the state to develop and research the intersection of STEM and innovation thinking in classrooms and teacher professional development. SITE is a partnership between ICEE Success, the Exploratorium’s MIT-originated Playful and Inventive Exploration (PIE) project, and a consortium of science education partners at Rice University, Southern Methodist University and the University of Texas at Austin. Primary project advisor is Mary Hobbs, Coordinator for Science Initiatives at Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics, University of Texas at Austin. She says, “The call from business and industry seems clear—that in order to be economically competitive, the U.S. has to educate its young people to be problem solvers and creative thinkers.”

Linda Scott, Ed. D., SITE Rice Center Director and Executive Director, School Science and Technology, Rice University, and former Director of Intermediate Science at Aldine (TX) ISD agrees. She says, “Mandated testing in Texas has caused test performance to become the measure of a successful district, school, and classroom teacher. This climate has elevated student performance on tests as the major driver of what is delivered in classrooms across the state of Texas. Teachers have no creativity in what must be taught in their classrooms; they must effectively teach the state standards. However, teachers do have creativity in the way in which they deliver the state standards in their classrooms to their students.  Our district was searching for a research-based vehicle that would allow us to teach the mandated state standards and, at the same time, highly motivate both our science teachers and our students. Our research led us to offer professional development in innovation thinking integrating science and art.  We made the decision to pair our intermediate science specialists and art specialists for a series of professional development activities. The science specialists learned that the world of art had much to offer them, including a way of thinking visually that transformed how science teaches observational skills and a way of thinking that made problem-solving fun. They found that art-science integration added strength to their science lessons, and developed a deep appreciation for the art teachers’ depth of science content in their areas of expertise. The art specialists were equally surprised to find that integrating science content and art lessons strengthened both disciplines and they found themselves included as a core content area. The collaboration between science and art teachers produced increased student motivation and content retention over time.”

Arts/Science Teacher Professional Development: In addition to working with students, partners developed strategies for effectively training teachers in the integration of innovation thinking and required student learning. Dara Williams-Rossi, Ph.D., Southern Methodist University Assistant Clinical Professor in Science Education and Director of Undergraduate Programs, reports, “In partnership with ICEE, Southern Methodist University provided over 40 hours of professional development that intersects art and science. K-12 science teachers utilized arts/design and playful and inventive exploration (PIE) techniques to help their students more deeply understand science content. A majority of the teachers began to utilize these techniques in their own classrooms. One teacher who participated in the professional development explained how she implemented these strategies: ‘Working in science stations, we build our background knowledge and then applied it by answering a challenge through creativity. Overall, I have observed greater [student] understanding in the content taught, and this shows though assessment’. Preliminary data collected during the professional development activities suggest that the science teachers not only now see the important connections between science and creativity but are also successfully utilizing the practices to engage and enrich their students.

This further supports the idea that changing teacher beliefs changes their practices.” Data collected during the professional development suggests that the science teachers saw that integrating the mandated concepts with creative/innovation thinking could promote science engagement and understanding.  For example there was a 26% increase between the first and last sessions in the number of teachers who indicated the highest level of agreement with the statement that integrating the standards with the problem-solving and inventing would engage the students in the science standards. There was a 31% increase in the number of teachers with the highest level of agreement with the statement that these strategies could help the students better understand the science concepts.

NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab’s Imagine Mars Project: In partnership with the Jet Propulsion Lab, NASA’s Mars formal education center at Arizona State University, the Exploratorium’s MIT-originated Playful and Inventive Exploration (PIE) project, the Center for Earth and Space Science Education planetarium, and local school districts, ICEE uses innovation thinking to promote student engagement and learning in science and language arts. Students perform grade-level hands-on investigations of Earth, physical, and life science, often trained in design thinking by their art specialist, then problem-find, design, and build solutions to human exploration of Mars, using mandated content, innovation thinking skills, the fine arts, and technology.

NASA’s Imagine Mars Lead, David Delgado, says, “We have seen unengaged students become very excited about science, design, and creative thinking as a result of Imagine Mars. They have shown a new ability to think innovatively, demonstrated greater self-efficacy in STEM and 21st Century Skills, as well as shown a new interest in STEM related learning.”

Results include the following: 1) In Tyler (TX) Independent School District: At Caldwell Elementary Arts Academy (65.0% Economically Disadvantaged; 53.9% At-Risk), a 5th grade teacher said, “Imagine Mars is the ‘glue’ that makes the concepts stick in the students’ minds. This is what school should look like”; at Orr Elementary (89.4% disadvantaged; 86.2% at-risk), students scored the highest science passing rates of any elementary in district in the targeted student sub-population, African Americans, after their 5-session Imagine Mars experience. Orr principal Walter Perez said, “Imagine Mars has had a significant impact on our students. I have been involved with this project for a number of years, and can verify that these programs significantly contribute to my students’ science engagement and learning. Not only were the students learning; they also were engaged in the science content to create their standards-driven Mars inventions.” 2) In Palestine (TX) Independent School District’s middle school (71.2% Economically Disadvantaged; 56.8% At-Risk), the 88 8th graders involved in the Imagine Mars project scored 12% higher on the science benchmark test taken during that period than the 88 students who were not involved in the project. In the Imagine Mars treatment class, passing benchmark test scores for the Hispanic sub-population rose 10% after the innovation thinking experiences. Principal Larissa Lovelace commented, “It has definitely increased interest in STEM, especially among low-performing students who have not been engaged. Some of them ended up taking leadership roles in their inventing teams… This could help retain students who might be at-risk for dropping out.” A middle school student remarked, “You have to think about your concept many times in order to solve it, and that helps you remember it”.

In Aldine (TX) Independent School District, the integration of innovation thinking skills and mandated science concepts was applied to a 3-day side-by-side training of art and science specialists. As a result of this training, participating science specialists showed a 66% increase in willingness to use problem-based learning and an 83% increase in understanding of the importance of integrating science and art in their curriculum.

Integrating STEM with Art Museum Programming: A multi-year partnership between the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington, DC, ICEE Success, and SITE explored the deep integration of visual and creative thinking with standards-based science and language arts learning in the ABC Picks Up STEAM project. In this project, students first analyzed the science content in an image from the museum’s collection. They then integrated mandated science concepts to design a paper-engineered book that could even be driven by circuits. They also wrote about their integrated science concepts. In  data from 200 students in 2 geographically diverse 5th grades in Title I schools, there was an 87% increase in the question “Making 3D book art helps me better understand science” after the experience. Teacher comments included, “It was important to see the students looking for connections between concepts and writing about them, then problem-solving to create the 3D books.” In fact, this project was particularly effective with English Language Learners. A bilingual teacher reported, “Students made connections by themselves during the visual thinking. It was amazing how students were able to recognize science concepts everywhere they looked during this activity.” National Museum of Women in the Arts Director of Education Deborah Gaston pointed out the value of equally integrating visual art and science She pointed out, “We developed the ABC curriculum to integrate the visual arts and languages arts, to draw direct parallels between the creative processes and tools of artists and writers. It’s a natural and important extension of ABC’s original goals to draw similar parallels between the creative thinking of artists and scientists. It’s particularly gratifying that student learning is taking place in the arts as well as in science. Too often the visual arts are put in service to other subjects; this project values the arts equally, by encouraging students to recognize connections between the arts and sciences.” Science education professor and SITE project participant Dara Williams Rossi, Ph.D. said, “Creative thinking leads to innovation in science and many other fields, for that matter.  Because artists and scientists use some of the same techniques, such as experimentation, observation and problem- solving skills, the integration of art and science is a natural fit that promotes creativity.”

Integrating Art and STEM in an International Partnership: A partnership between the Canadian Philip Beesley Hylozoic Ground project, The Leonardo art/science museum in Salt Lake City, Utah, faculty at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Knowledge Integration (CKI), and ICEE Success, is exploring the impact of innovation thinking on mandated science content engagement and understanding. This project invites students to integrate cutting-edge exhibit concepts with cross-disciplinary experiences in science, engineering, art, and design to solve a real-world problem. The students use shape memory alloy (muscle wire), motors, and found objects to create a kinetic device that demonstrates the interrelationship between forces/motion and other science concepts. Although data is still being collected, Lisa Covington, the Palestine (TX) ISD science lead for 6th through 8th grades, said that the 7th grade students who participated in this project were “extremely engaged in the science and engineering and excited about designing their solutions and taking it into other applications in their own lives.” Exhibit engineer, Associate Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Centre for Knowledge Integration, and project collaborator Rob Gorbet, said that “the hands-on problem-solving activity coupled with mandated science concepts provides an important opportunity for the students to see the relevance of science in their daily lives, and to make the connections across the disciplines of science and art which are crucial for creative, innovative thinking.”

This integration of mandated science concepts and innovation thinking is also evident in museum experiences. This extensive exhibit made its US appearance at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City. Leonardo museum director Alex Hesse points out that this exhibit promotes students’ integration of science and innovation thinking. She says, “The Leonardo utilizes the Philip Beesley installation as a natural hook for engaging students in interesting interdisciplinary connections through an in-depth student workshop that focuses on perspectives. This workshop involves students and teachers in an educational, enjoyable, and comprehensive experience designed to foster knowledge, conceptual understanding, and curiosity.  It immerses students in experiences that blend science, engineering, technology and art, while integrating critical skills of creativity, innovation, problem solving, communication and collaboration. The workshop’s objectives include not only increasing understanding of the process and practice of science, along with the mandated state science concepts, but also encouraging a sense of curiosity that can stimulate further explorations. Students observe, express, envision, reflect, explore, engage, design and persist as they explore the installation from a variety of perspectives.  The students discover how responsive architecture more closely integrates symbiotically with its environment and responds to that environment; they create blind-contour drawings of components within different layers, analyze these components structurally and functionally (down to what is happening at the molecular level in the memory metal Nitinol), consider alternate applications for components beyond this installation, and ultimately apply their understanding  to design a collaborative “living” installation that completes a repeatable task with the single pull of a string.”


Brain-based research shows that applying concepts to multiple modalities enhances a student’s ability to retain the information. For example, Ken Wesson, Ph.D., lecturer on the neuroscience of learning, points out that the brain retains information more effectively if it is emotionally engaged and if the information is repeatedly applied to multiple modalities, as in the concept integration strategies (Wesson, 2002). Education researcher John Bransford, Ph.D., points out that effective learning requires information processing, forging connections between ideas around a central concept, and transferring information among different modalities (Bransford, 2000). Paula Lundberg-Love, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Tyler, referencing Neil R. Carlson’s Physiology of Behavior (Carlson, 2012), a neuropsychology textbook, points out that when facts are used in other contexts, brain synaptic strengthening occurs, helping students remember what they have learned. The New York Times article, “Forget What You Know about Good Study Habits”, (Carey, 2010) references several studies that indicate that the brain better retains information when it is applied to a variety of contexts over time and is learned in differing environments. Thus, applying mandated science concepts to multiple modalities, such as the arts, design, and engineering, could enhance understanding and retention.


Experts and studies point to the crucial need to integrate vital innovation thinking skills with mandated science content learning in K-12 education environments. Suggested strategies exist to accomplish this. State, national, and international partnerships are exploring these needs and these strategies through pilot projects.  They are generating promising initial data. This data and observations suggest that integrating innovation thinking with mandated content learning promotes science engagement and learning, especially in underrepresented populations. This information can help fuel studies and policies that determine and implement the most effective practices in these fields.


Suggested Action #1: K-12 Policy Changes

Stakeholders: Education policymakers (national and state legislative bodies, state and regional education agencies)

The Need: Classroom curriculum and mandated tests don’t address vital innovation thinking skills needed for national and global economic success.

The Opportunity: Become a primary catalyst that fuels the national and global economies while increasing student content engagement and learning.

Suggested Actions: Enact policies that place equal emphasis on innovation thinking skills and content learning. Promote and fund the cross-disciplinary integration of arts and design thinking skills, mandated science, math, and language arts standards, and problem-based learning with global outreach to partner with students in other nations. This can be accomplished through teacher education, workshops, grants, research, and the development of a national K-12 Innovation Thinking Center.  This Center would direct, promote, and assess the delivery of these skills.

Suggested Action #2: K-12 Curriculum Changes

Stakeholders: State education agencies and school districts

The Need: K-12 curriculum does not include vital innovation thinking skills.

The Opportunity: Develop and evaluate K-12 curriculum that provides the next generation of innovation thinkers.

Suggested Actions:  Design curriculum that promotes innovation thinking skills while delivering mandated content. Important components of this curriculum are: knowledge transfer among all fine arts and core disciplines, problem-finding /problem-solving, collaboration, persistence, learning from failure, arts thinking, thinking flexibly, inventing, tinkering, and emotional engagement. Engage experts in these fields to assist in the curriculum development. Research and evaluate the most effective strategies as they are developed.

Suggested Action #3: Research

Stakeholders: Federal and state agencies, private funders

The Need: There is a great lack of quality research documenting the impact of arts and innovation thinking skills on science and math engagement, learning, and pipeline attitudes. There are proof-of-concepts models that need to be explored, scaled, and evaluated to determine effectiveness.


Suggested Actions:  Provide funding to comprehensively evaluate proof-of-concept and best practices models to determine the most effective arts/science strategies that promote innovation thinking, in addition to STEM engagement and learning. There should be additional funding for further development of assessments of these skills within the mandated testing cycles.

Suggested Action #4: Funding for Innovation Thinking in K-12

Stakeholders: Governmental and private funders

The Need: Innovation thinking skills in the US are on the decline, affecting business and the US economy. There are funding opportunities for innovative approaches, but there is a need for funding that directly addresses delivering innovation thinking skills within the public K-12 mandated curriculum.

The Opportunity: Become the driver behind the innovation thinking surge in K-12 education.

Suggested Actions:  Work individually and in partnerships to provide funding and incentives to increase innovation thinking skills in K-12 students. This includes funding for: curriculum development and evaluation, program development that partners formal and informal education, business, and higher education, and strong assessments.


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