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Stumbling Blocks to Innovation: Motivation

I want to extend a special thank you to all the fantastic parents, educators, business leaders, and committed community members who attended last night’s Beaver County STEM Advocacy Coalition. Nineteen people gathered at the local community college to share resources, energy, and enthusiasm for growing a generation of innovators, trained in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.  It’s exciting to see local plans unfold for so many new opportunities for the 35,000 young people of BeaverCounty, a growing wave of project based learning watering the thirst for skills to thrive in the 21st century.  There is much hope in the thought that similar movements are happening in county’s all over the state and country.

How great, though, is that thirst?  One implicit stream flowing through our conversation was the question of motivation. Everyone there spoke of tremendous opportunities;

· The CCBC robotics certificate program designed in collaboration with CMU to fill the need of local and national jobs

·  Increasing availability of AP Math and Science, Digital Media, Programming, and Engineering courses in our 15 area brick and mortar schools

·  Extraordinary project based afterschool programs being offered by the Franklin Center, cyber schools and private schools.

·  Affordable online courses through CCBC, in partnership with Ed2Go (Certificate Prep, Computer Fundamentals, Computer Programming, Database Management,  Graphic/Multimedia Design, Networking, Security, and Web Technology).

·  Four new STEM oriented charter schools proposed for BeaverCounty

·  An all-girls conference, Expanding your Horizons, for girls in grades 6, 7,8, & 9 will be held on Saturday, October 15, 2011 at RobertMorrisCollege.

How do we, as parents, help our children find the motivation to step into a world where they make the games, not just play it, build the technology, not just become dependent on it, create a thriving economy, not just resign themselves to stagnation?  What will motivate our kids to enroll and participate?  Do we offer carrots and sticks or do we call them to autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

Carrots and sticks (mechanistic, reward and punishment) work for many twentieth century tasks and for simple tasks of narrow focus but actually hinder motivation for many of the 21st century tasks that requires out of the box thinking and problem solving. A good quick online explanation of motivation by Dan Pink can be found at

 If you only have five minutes, and not the twenty for a Ted Talk, go view the RSAnimate illustration of Dan’s insights  If you have more time, pick up a copy of his bestselling book Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, His great insight, based in research, is that if a task requires even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward leads to poorer performance. If the task require any type of thinking, if it is more than repetitive algorithm of behavior, then you need to give the person autonomy (you probably want to do something interesting – let me get out of your way), mastery (you want to get better at something), and a sense of making a contribution (purpose motive).

How do I create an environment that, when I get out of my child’s way, he or she is intrinsically motivated to do something interesting in that freedom? What are the skills he or she wants to get better at?  Do they have opportunities to make a contribution, a real contribution of something tangible and valuable? Project Based Learning, particularly projects that incorporate 21st century skills, lends itself to these goals.  May the school year be filled with those opportunities, and may our children participate with autonomy, mastery, and purpose, igniting a desire to build a more beautiful and just world.

This week’s hero: The leaders of the Beaver County STEM Education Advocacy Coalition (oh, oh, that’s me too!)

This week’s question to ask your favorite young person: What would inspire you to take advantage of one of the new STEM opportunities in your school or community?

This week’s free resource:


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