George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Link Between Discovery and Innovation

The Link Between Discovery and Innovation

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On the first day of the World Government Summit held earlier this month in Dubai, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson passionately asked the several hundred world leaders in the audience to have hope - and to invest in scientific research. We need hope, he said, to make and to act on audacious plans and we need science to drive our understanding of what is possible.  In his talk, “Science of Today: Technology of Tomorrow,” Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson discussed the scientific underpinnings of today’s innovations, the power that is conferred to nations and people through discovery, and the importance of bold research. In a world marked by war, education under attack, and a growing refugee crisis, scientific research may not seem like an imminent need. Yet, without new learning, there will not be new solutions. As he spoke, Dr. deGrasse Tyson referred back to his own sense of wonder as a child attending the World’s Fair and the belief it conjured that anything could happen, that the future could be different, perhaps even better.

Just before the summit, I ran a maker event for thirty three schools across the United Arab Emirates.  I am passionate about Maker Education and the impact it can have on students, teachers, and society. I am also quick to forget that science education and scientific discoveries lie behind the children’s work - along with the design process, project-based learning, empathy, technical knowledge, creativity and joy that I celebrate.

As I reflected on Dr. deGrasse Tyson’s talk and the projects I saw at Maker Day, I was struck by how our students’ innovations - some useful, some delightful, some seemingly crazy - are part of a story that begins with scientific (and mathematical) discovery.

Green Thumb, a student-created Internet of Things project, featured a desert climate irrigation system that could measure and respond to moisture and minerals in the soil. Green Thumb relies on control systems, which rely on differential equations, which we wouldn’t have without calculus. While neither Isaac Newton nor Gottfried Leibniz would have imagined our modern city in the Arabian desert and our landscaping needs, our young innovators would not have had a project without their discoveries.

Another student group created a drone for carrying supplies to areas affected by natural disasters. They modified their drone by 3D printing parts...from a 3D printer that they had, in large part, 3D printed. 3D printing relies heavily on geometry and trigonometry. Early study of triangles can be found in Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. Euclid and Archimedes gave us geometry. 9th century astronomers from the Islamic world simplified trigonometry.

Many digital art projects presented used smartphone cameras. These cameras use sensors to determine light values, and light values to determine color. The science of light and color comes, in large part, from Francesco Grimaldi’s 1665 discovery of diffraction, Sir Isaac Newton’s work to understand and explain this, and Thomas Young’s 1804 wave theory of light.

At least 20% of the projects at Maker Day used interlocking plastic bricks to help turn their ideas into reality. Synthetic polymer was developed in 1869 to replace ivory in production - not to make construction and robotics kits or torture the barefoot parents of young inventors who inadvertently create brick minefields. Now LEGO is funding the search for a sustainable material to replace plastic in its products.

This month’s recorded collision of two black holes will lead to further information about our cosmos. I don’t know what discoveries and innovations will result, but I can’t wait to find out.

When I tucked my 9 year old son into bed after the Government Summit, I asked him what he thought was the difference between hopes and wishes. He told me, “A hope is a wish you can make happen.” In a world heavy with wishes, it could just be that we need science to fuel our hope.

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