01/25/2013 11:16 am ET Updated Mar 27, 2013

Educating Tomorrow's Innovators

In announcing his Strategy for American Innovation in 2011, President Barack Obama said:

The first step in winning the future is encouraging American innovation. None of us can predict with certainty what the next big industry will be or where the new jobs will come from. . . . What we can do -- what America does better than anyone else--is spark the creativity and imagination of our people.

His comments have been echoed by government and business leaders across the country, spurring American businesses to reinvent themselves in the face of a difficult economy and fierce global competition. A generation of young entrepreneurs is heeding the message as well, bringing their talents to an ever-widening array of new products and services.

Appropriately, the president and many others have identified education as a driver of greater innovation. In higher education, our research universities -- and their business and engineering schools, in particular -- have taken the lead in promoting innovation and entrepreneurship and adopting curricula in support of those ends. As the president of a small, liberal arts college, I contend that liberal arts colleges must also accept this challenge and determine how we can prepare our students to become tomorrow's innovators.

Innovation requires:

  • Intelligence gathering. To become an innovator, you must make sense of an abundance of data, and then use your findings to identify emerging trends in order to capitalize on them. Additionally, you must appreciate the global context within which you are working.
  • Problem solving. You must draw upon what you know and apply it creatively in search of a solution. A broad knowledge base is essential in this process, as is the cultivation of imagination.
  • Teamwork. You must be inclusive, working with people across functional lines. And you must encourage competing ideas.
  • Experimentation. You must be willing to embrace the new, test your ideas, and promote risk-taking. Innovators give themselves plenty of opportunities to fail and are quick to recover from mistakes.
  • Communication. Finally, you must possess communication skills that enable you both to inspire your team and persuasively convey your ideas to consumers or to the broader community.

Liberal arts education is well-positioned to cultivate all of these capabilities in students. In classes that emphasize a constant exchange of information and opinions, as they do on liberal arts campuses, students become nimble thinkers and consummate collaborators. They learn how to formulate ideas and effectively express them. And increasingly, liberal arts institutions are ensuring that students take what they have learned and test it in the real world through experiential education.

To a great extent, liberal arts colleges already are providing the knowledge and skills that will propel future innovation. They have a particularly strong record of preparing graduates who go on to leadership in the sciences. A National Science Foundation study showed that, of the 50 institutions that were producing the most Ph.D.s in the sciences per 100 undergraduate degrees granted, over half (28) were liberal arts colleges. This record is largely the result of excellent teaching, intensive faculty-student interaction, and opportunities for meaningful undergraduate research.

However, efforts to encourage innovation should stretch well beyond science and technology. Graduates in the fine arts, humanities, and social sciences have roles to play -- we need to tap their creativity, their ability to express important ideas, and their understanding of societal needs. These strengths can be invaluable in developing not only tangible products, but new services and modes of delivery.

As a sign of the continuing growth of innovation curricula in higher education, the University of Phoenix recently announced that it will offer a professional development course in innovation taught by Harvard Business School faculty. It's time for liberal arts colleges to become more intentional about promoting innovation as well. Liberal arts colleges can and should be active participants in moving our country forward through innovation.

At Albion College, we want to contribute to this larger conversation. We have long been committed to fostering creativity in our students, but we need to do more. We are actively developing partnerships with nonprofits businesses, and large research universities to foster an entrepreneurial mindset in students across all the liberal arts disciplines. Higher education has been, and will continue to be, a key contributor to our nation's economic growth. In 2013, the need for all colleges and universities in the nation to rise to the challenge of graduating more innovators has never been clearer.