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Students Design Their Future

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Seated with the First Lady during President Obama's recent State of the Union address was a high school student from West Philadelphia High School. A participant in the Spirit of Innovation Awards, Brandon was given the opportunity to sit with Michelle Obama because he's part of a new generation of high school students who are helping to design the future.

During his address, President Obama painted a grim picture of our American education system: lower test scores, decreasing literacy and increased dropout rates and, in particular, waning interest and ability in math and the sciences.

There are numerous reasons for this crisis in education. But on a broad level, I believe we've lost the connection between learning and what comes next: the real world. In our present system, far too much emphasis is placed merely on kids passing tests.

Testing, however, is not educating.

So with all of this relentless testing going on, how can we manage to get students more interested and immersed in science and technology?

Well, what do you think you'd get if you put a team of high school students together for four months and gave them the opportunity to take risks and to unleash their scientific creativity to solve real world problems?

Based on current education statistics, you might guess: very little.

But here's what we got -- we got the next big ideas.

Our Spirit of Innovation Awards program challenges teams of high school students to create products, using science and technology, to solve the grand challenges of the 21st century. In three years since its inception, our teams have created 170 potentially commercially viable products -- products designed to address problems from energy to the environment and from oceans to aerospace.

This is more than just a science project: students are also required to conduct research to determine their creation's potential market impact and develop a full business plan, market study and a visual representation of their product idea. By merging education, innovation and entrepreneurship, these teams are empowered to design their future.

Projects by our student teams have been awarded patents -- featured in Popular Science magazine, and archived into the Kennedy Library -- and are poised for licensing to the commercial marketplace. Our students have made presentations at the Copenhagen Climate Conference and been interviewed by the BBC and MTV.

These students, from across the country and from widely varying socio-economic backgrounds, have become the rock stars of science.

I know from personal experience what can happen when students are given an opportunity to reach their full potential. My late husband Pete Conrad was the commander of Apollo 12 and the third man to walk on the moon. What may seem surprising is that Pete was expelled from school in the 11th grade. Due to undiagnosed dyslexia, he was flunking all of his classes because he couldn't read and he couldn't spell. Fortunately his mother enrolled him at a school where a caring headmaster saw something special in Pete and took him under his wing. Pete went on to earn a scholarship to Princeton, become an aeronautical engineer, fly four flights in space, be awarded a Congressional Space Medal of Honor and create four companies -- all because a caring educator took him under his wing, saw his creative potential and gave him his moon shot.

The Spirit of Innovation Awards program is taking students under our wing and giving them their moon shot. We are building a pipeline of young innovators who will be the innovative pioneers for the 21st century.

So, maybe the news about science in our schools isn't entirely bad.

Perhaps we can begin to fix our current education crisis by providing our students with more creative outlets that have a basis in solving real world problems. That's the mission of the Spirit of Innovation Awards. As President Obama said, "In their willingness to take a risk on a bold idea, we can see the future. We can see how America will compete and win in the 21st century global economy."