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Tuning in to Gen Y: Cultivating Seeds of Innovation in Our Children

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The next time we feel dubious over whether today's young people possess the talent, courage, drive and commitment to assume mantles of leadership in innovation for tomorrow's competitive global arena, let's remember stories such as this:

In winter 2010, three recent college grads -- all in their early 20s -- got together and decided they were tired of corporate life and ready to pursue their dream of launching their own business. They quit their well-paying jobs in the San Francisco Bay Area, hopped into a rental car and drove across the U.S. looking for similar-minded Gen Y individuals.

Their 13-city tour that year allowed them to connect (offline and online) with more than 35,000 upper teens and 20-somethings who were either interested or ready to start entrepreneurial ventures of their own. Not sure what to do next, the trio -- Arielle Scott, Danielle Leslie and Virgilia Singh -- decided to work with this auspicious following to help forge it into a movement of innovation among Gen Yers across the country.

Thus their venture, GenJuice.com, was born -- which today is a highly successful and growing network that connects young established and aspiring innovators in technology, law, education, the arts and other industries with like-minded peers nationwide, allowing them to come together online and in person to meet and brainstorm, share ideas and resources, motivate one another toward success, and to connect with mentors and cutting-edge leaders in industry.

When reading about Arielle Scott, GenJuice's CEO and co-founder (who was only 21 when she launched the GenJuice endeavor shortly after receiving her degree in Information Technology and Media from the University of California, Berkeley) and how she and her colleagues started their enterprise, you get a better sense of the mindset prevalent today among many hard-charging Gen Yers -- and what makes many in this generation of young people inherently primed for success as innovators and achievers, if such traits are nurtured and cultivated early.

Scott says, the Gen Y set, in addition to growing up cutting its teeth on such technological innovations as the computer, Blackberry, iPhone, Google, Facebook and YouTube, "is very unique in that most of us were brought up making decisions." She continues: "Many in our generation typically were included in the decisions our parents made; the ideas we had were usually taken very seriously by them and other adults, and overall, we were brought up as immediate contributors to our society and how it is run. Thus, we are creating entrepreneurial and innovative ventures because we have been told several times over that we could change the world, and we are not sparing any time in doing so."

It is this passionate can-do attitude, and genuine curiosity about technology and innovation among young people that drives me in my role as founder and organizer of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Working closely with K-12 teachers, research universities, professional organizations, government agencies and other entities in coordinating the annual festival, I am constantly inspired by the eagerness of our kids to learn more about the wonders of science, engineering and serial entrepreneurship in technology, and the rewards these careers offer.

And when these opportunities are provided in engaging, hands-on ways with world class innovators in myriad technological fields (which the festival and its finale expo -- the country's only national celebration of its kind to motivate the next generation of innovators -- offers in spades), kids' interest, intellectual curiosity and excitement for learning grows exponentially!

We look forward to this experience again next April when the 2nd USA Science & Engineering Festival kicks off with myriad celebrations and interactive sessions, including satellite events across the country, school visits by more than 100 noted scientists and engineers, public luncheons with Nobel laureates in science, and a massive finale expo in Washington, D.C. replete with numerous demonstrations, stage shows and exhibits in science and engineering.

What's more, the festival will provide an opportunity for students to meet and interact with such Gen Y innovators like: Eben Bayer who through his environmental company is helping to revolutionize the packaging industry by replacing bubble wrap and Styrofoam with eco-friendly material made from mushrooms. And savvy computer scientist Carol Reiley who is at the forefront of ushering in new technology in robotics that is enabling humanoid machines to help perform everything from surgery and space exploration to disaster rescue.

This is why I salute Arielle Scott and her cohorts at GenJuice (who with other young innovative entrepreneurs were invited this year to the White House by President Obama to showcase their enterprise) and other like-minded individuals as they earnestly work with this generation to cultivate the seeds of innovation.

But as author Jenny Floren emphasizes in her recent book, The Innovation Generation: The Gen Y Way & How New Thinking Can Reclaim the American Dream, more of us -- on all fronts and industries -- need to become involved in the fight to nurture and motivate these "diamond in the rough" youngsters, including kids who attend schools without adequate resources or who lack proper parental guidance.

In speaking about her book, Floren, founder and CEO of the youth motivational firm Experience, says:

"I wanted to give corporate America and the government a wake up call. This generation of young people, in many ways, posseses a whole different group of skills that many seasoned and experienced employees don't naturally possess," including the ability to readily understand and work with technology, function effectively in teams, and to look at and solve problems innovative ways. She adds:

One of my goals is to get the word out to employers that these skills are needed to help America break through some of the barriers that are causing us to fall behind other countries as leaders in innovation and global economy.

But as she and I believe, employers, organizations and others in the private and public sectors need to come together to help schools (through interactive mentorships, internships, field trips, engaging talks and demonstrations and other outreach endeavors) to hone and strengthen these skills in kids, especially through interaction that shows how to use technology to solve real, everyday problems, and the importance of achieving a good education.

In addition, she, with other experts, contends that educators themselves can help students become innovative thinkers by taking advantage of more innovative approaches in the classroom. "A lot of the research being done shows that many of the skills needed to succeed in the 21st century are just not being taught in school," says Floren. "The raw material is there but we need to come up with a system that helps educators teach the required skills to become successful and to begin to put this to work earlier in our kids."

No question about it, more work needs to be done by everyone. But with every gleam of excitement that I see in the eyes youngsters that we reach through the USA Science & Engineering Festival, and through other efforts underway in this country, my optimism soars, as should yours, especially when we realize that such hot innovations as Facebook and YouTube were launched by Gen Yers!

Join us in April when we at the festival partner with others in the technological, educational and entrepreneurial communities and take another major step in cultivating seeds of innovation with the next generation.

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