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What can the White House Science Fair teach us about innovation?

May 2, 2013
Shannon Bayer

The following story on, written by Gregory Ferenstein, provides some interesting insight on innovation and as President Obama says, “..this stuff is really cool.”

“Every spring, the White House invites children to show off life-changing innovations that have mostly been constructed in MacGyver-like fashion from commercially available materials. Even though I cover this story every year, it’s hard not to be inspired by brilliant young kids motivated to tackle the world’s problems. “Let me just say in my official capacity as president, this stuff is really cool,” said President Obama.

“We’ve rounded up three awesome and inspiring projects below:

“1. A 3D-Printed, Mind-Controlled Prosthetic–17-year-old Easton LaChappelle has created a mind-controlled prosthetic arm for the low price of $250, thanks to parts cheaply replicated from a 3D printer….

“2. Cancer Detection–Google Global Science Fair Winner, 17-year-old Brittany Wenger, found a low-cost way to radically increase early cancer detection. Wenger’s project utilizes a computer process modeled after the human brain, a neural network, to boost the accuracy of detecting cancer in skin samples to 99 percent, which could help doctors save lives through early treatment….

“3. Tactile sound–Eighth-grade Californian Jonah Kohn developed a tactile-sound device to help the hearing impaired enjoy music. Sound can actually travel through vibrations in the skin, which Kohn discovered when he decided to bite down on his electric guitar (remember what it was like to be young and experimental?)….

Click here for the full story that got Shannon Bayer, one of Linkage’s own innovation experts thinking:

“I admit it, I loved creating and designing my science fair projects,” she writes. “However, I was also a procrastinator, so they were usually rushed and testing theories already proven.

“It never occurred to me to compete nationally for an award or recognition. But these projects take it a step further. The cool thing here is these kids aren’t just competing in a science fair, they’re actually trying to help people in true need.

“Take any of the examples from the techcrunch story or the bicycle-powered emergency water sanitation station that another team came up with.

“So what makes it innovative? First, they looked at the need. They needed a way for natural disaster victims to clean non-potable water. Then they came up with a simple, portable, and affordable system that can provide clean water for a large family or even neighborhood!

So, why are teenagers with limited resources coming up with innovative solutions to global problems?

I think it’s partly due to the natural lens that evolves as we learn to become part of the normative society. We develop a lens that allows us to process the fast-paced world with mental short cuts. But this slowly closes people down to the point where they believe there are limitations and don’t even try out ideas.

The question is: Can you step back and truly embrace the open, unlimited mind of your youth to encourage and embrace innovation in your organization?

More about Shannon
Shannon Bayer is a Senior Consultant at Linkage. She specializes in providing facilitation and program design for innovation and change leadership. She also works with organizations to improve team effectiveness, negotiation, and coaching. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonJBayer.

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