We recently announced the successful outcome of the Popular Science-InnoCentive Education Challenge. The Challenge, which attracted more than 1,200 Solvers from around the world, asked for lesson plans that could be used at the middle-school level in each of five areas of science that will be vital in the future. Materials couldn't cost more than $50, and the lesson needed to fit into no more than three, 50-minute classes. We asked Jacob Ward, editor-in-chief of Popular Science, to chat with us about the Challenge and results.
Hello Mr. Ward – thanks for joining us today. Could you tell us about the genesis of this Challenge and what you hoped to accomplish?
For our annual education special — the September issue of Popular Science — we look for ways to inspire a wide range of readers. Our audience runs the age range from 10-year-olds all the way up to retired grandparents. So Popular Science, in collaboration with InnoCentive, wanted to run a Challenge that could conceivably affect all of these people.
The Challenge asked Solvers to submit lessons plan in five distinct areas – Bomimetics, fuel cells, polymers, climate change, and “big data.” What led you to choose these specific areas?
In the end, we wanted to come up with lesson plans for the future of science, out beyond what people are teaching today. We consulted with educators, futurists, and other experts to settle on five areas of growing interest, and that we knew had the potential to really revolutionize their respective fields. Biologically-inspired (biomimetic) design is a growing trend at the moment, fuel cells could truly overturn the power mechanisms we rely on today, and everyone’s talking about “big data” — we figured that if we could engage kids today in these areas, we’d be helping to pave the way to some truly revolutionary work when those kids enter the workforce in a couple of decades.
You posted the winning solutions (i.e., lesson plans) on PopSci.com, along with details about the second and third place entrants. What drove you to open the solutions to the public and what’s the response been like?
With a Challenge like this, it was incredibly difficult to choose a winning entry for each category, because we received so many inspiring and revolutionary ideas. So we figured that even though not everyone could win, we wanted as many lesson plans as possible to get public visibility. There were so many useful lesson plans submitted, and teachers need new lesson plans so badly, why not put them all out there?
Of the dozens of InnoCentive Challenges that have been posted to the PopSci Innovation Pavilion, we’ve seen PopSci provide significant lift – both in terms of number of Solvers and their submissions. To what do you attribute your readers embracing open innovation Challenges and becoming successful Solvers?
The wonderful thing about Popular Science readers is that they understand that great innovations can truly come from anywhere — any classroom, any garage, or any workshop. Our readers are can-do, roll-up-your-sleeves thinkers, and so they tend to have great ideas that are absolutely actionable. With the innovation pavilion made possible through our partnership with InnoCentive, we’re just giving them a place to bring those great ideas to the surface.
I believe congratulations are in order – the PopSci-InnoCentive partnership just celebrated its one-year anniversary. What stands out to you as the most memorable accomplishments?
Thanks! It’s been great so far. We’ve been very proud to see our instincts about our readers proven right — namely that they’re positive, forward-thinking, pragmatic folks, ready to solve problems for the world. I was very pleased with the sheer variety of Challenges they have tackled, from designing gloves that can survive a fast descent down a rope to software that can report speed bumps to a central system. Truly, Popular Science readers can do anything, if given the chance.
Thanks for your time Mr. Ward. Is there any final advice you can provide to companies seeking to launch Challenges or Solvers looking to solve them?
The thing we’ve learned that I think might be useful to understand is that Solvers like our readers tend to like a very specific set of technical parameters. They aren’t inspired by wide-open Challenges about “improving the world” or “finding the best way.” They’re inspired by specific constraints. I’ve also been pleased to discover how many types of Challenges our audience goes after — I think any organization considering a Challenge program with InnoCentive shouldn’t pigeonhole the types of people they think are going to bring in a successful solution. Instead, throw it out there. You never know where a good idea or solution is going to come from.