A Launching Pad for Innovation

04/27/2013 03:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2013

Imagine attracting more than 30,000 visitors to a college campus on a Saturday and it has nothing to do with a football game.

On May 4, the campus of Rochester Institute of Technology will become a hotbed of innovation and creativity. More than 1,400 exhibitors -- students, faculty and staff -- will proudly display examples of green technology, new ideas for medical innovations and devices, creative arts and crafts, and groundbreaking research at Imagine RIT: Innovation and Creativity Festival. The festival serves as a catalyst for innovation and entrepreneurship throughout campus and has spawned student-led ventures. Since 2008, Imagine RIT has drawn more than 140,000 visitors.

Why does this matter for other colleges and universities across the land?

The declining interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) by high school students as a career interest has been well documented for more than a decade by higher education and many other organizations, including the U.S. National Academies. The best jobs, now and in the future, are in the STEM disciplines. It is never too late to create a spark of interest among our young people and demonstrate to them how STEM can be fun and rewarding.

We see the festival as a call to national service. Innovation is one of our country's most competitive and strategic advantages. The festival is designed to show what can be accomplished when smart, talented people with diverse strengths work together to solve complex societal problems. Young Americans walk to the beat of their own drummer, and their desire to be different is an innate American characteristic. Channeling that passion in constructive ways will foster the United States' leadership in technical innovation and creative ideas for new products and services.

While families and RIT alumni are among the throngs on festival day engaged with hands-on exhibits, company recruiters and community entrepreneurs now scout the festival for talent and the next big idea.

Students like Justin Hillery and Sean Petterson discovered a big idea. They are the co-founders of Strong Arm Technologies Inc. and have won nearly $200,000 in startup business contests, including the 2012 MassChallenge Businesses Competition and the 2012 New York State Business Plan Competition. The duo invented a lifting system consisting of a form-fitting garment that incorporates load-bearing straps to help workers lift objects with significantly less risk of injuries.

This entrepreneurial spirit has inspired fellow students like Mike Every. The physics major plans to launch his new idea at this year's festival. Every is an amateur telescope maker who wants to put high-powered telescopes into the hands of the masses. Amateur astronomers, he says, are looking to build their own instruments with cheaper, lighter mirrors that reduce the cost and weight of the optics. Every is developing a high-tech plastic mirror that could forever change the focus of the telescope landscape. "I want to appeal to the amateurs first," he said. "Without the amateur enthusiasts in astronomy, you won't have the professionals."

If he gains momentum at the festival, perhaps Every will follow in the footsteps of Paul Solt, who has parlayed his festival ideas into a growing enterprise. Solt is the creator of the Artwork Evolution iPhone/iPad app that allows users to create digital artwork. He has since created four additional apps, including "Photo Table" that has attracted more than 440,000 downloads. Solt, a 2012 computer science graduate, now has a start-up company where he is focused on creating more digital products, as well as teaching mobile-app development. Solt is earning a modest income with his business. "I believe that I'm on the cusp of getting significant downloads and building up a revenue stream to support hiring employees," he said.

RIT is not alone in celebrating science and technology. The USA Science and Engineering Festival, the largest science festival in the nation, was held April 26 and 27 in Washington, D.C. reaching 650,000 people.

As a nation, we must reclaim our leadership in STEM fields, as we did in the space race era. Let's make it fun and experience the magic of the future.