03/04/2013 06:42 pm ET Updated May 04, 2013

Young American Innovators: America's Unfair Advantage

A number of years ago when I was Dean of Engineering at the University of Maryland, we had recently introduced a new freshman engineering course in which teams of six students were asked to design and build a significant engineering project in their first semester. A fair amount of "just in time" education went on in this course, but the students almost always surprised me with their ingenuity and their built-in desire to be innovative. One year, for example, the project was to design a human-powered water pump to be used for irrigation in third-world countries. As you might expect, the students were very creative in attacking that problem and many clever solutions were designed, built, and tested.

That year, a group of Japanese educators visited the campus and asked to see the assembly hall where some 80 student teams were completing their projects. As I escorted them into the building, their jaws suddenly dropped, and one of them said to me, "In Japan, they would all be the same."

What they meant was that in Japan the students would be watching other teams and constantly updating their design with the best ideas they saw. As a result, the Japanese teams would all tend to hone in on the same final design. In the U.S., however, students tend to watch the other teams and then try to find a way to be different. In fact, many teams went so far out of their way to design unique and innovative projects that they willingly produced less efficient designs just to demonstrate that they were thinking outside the box.

I was reminded of this last year when I challenged Rochester Institute of Technology students and staff to compete in a quarter-mile drag race between home-built vehicles that didn't burn fossil fuels. This "Green Vehicle Challenge" was not one of my better thought-out ideas. I began to realize this when a couple of students working on one of the vehicles told me that he thought they could get their electric car up to 120 mph on a quarter mile track! Presidential thoughts of institutional liability immediately ran through my mind and we quickly reduced the track length to 100 meters, but to be honest I didn't breathe easily until after the last vehicle completed the race and no one was injured.

Like the Maryland freshman engineering projects, no two of the competing vehicles were the same. One team produced a compressed-air driven car that would have been a strong competitor had they been able to control wheel spin at the starting point (compressed air produces its highest power output when first released). Probably the scariest moment came when one of our deaf female students competed on a high-powered electric bicycle by lying stomach down on the seat with her head forward and her legs trailing behind. By the time she completed the 100 meter track she was doing better than 50 mph on a bicycle! And the winner was a lightning fast electric car built by a team of female engineering students. Their car was going faster than 60 mph at the end of 100 meters and it beat out competing vehicles built by RIT staff members who had considerably more experience and funding.

Where does this inherent American desire to be different come from? American "rugged individualism" certainly plays a role (remember Frank Sinatra's "I Did it My Way"?) Perhaps it's our history as a nation of immigrants from all over the world that says "It's OK to be different" to our young people. Perhaps it's the idea that failure is OK in our culture that encourages our young people to take innovative approaches. Perhaps it's the rich variation in schooling and the environment in which our young people are raised that brings new ideas to the innovation table. Whatever the reason, I'm convinced that the desire of our young people to be creative, if harnessed appropriately, can truly be an "unfair advantage" over foreign competitors.

One caution, however: If the diversity of educational experiences of our youth is a contributing factor, then we must ensure that as we work on our very real K-12 challenges that we do not mimic the lockstep regimentation of education seen in countries like Japan. Our young people must do better in school if they are to compete globally, but let's also ensure that different approaches to learning are supported and encouraged.