Supporting Innovation

Hello! I am back from a short hiatus where I was graced with the opportunity to read the biography of John Atanasoff, The Man Who Invented the Computer: The Biography of John Atanasoff, Digital Pioneer, written by Jane Smiley (2010). John Atanasoff was one of what Smiley calls the “digital pioneers” who blazed the trail for the blessing and curse that is the current computer.  Smiley tells the story of how mathematicians and scientists from all over the globe worked to solve computing problems in their respective fields. Spurred by World War II, these pioneers overcame a variety of intellectual, economic, institutional, and social barriers to ultimately achieve a breakthrough that without a doubt has changed life as we know it.

Aside from the interesting story of how these scientists worked to achieve these breakthroughs in computing, this book also brought to mind a series of questions for me related to our own field of education.

Nurturing innovation

Using the platform of Nancy Andreason’s Creative Brains (2006) to examine John Atanasoff, Smiley describes how some of the most important breakthroughs came in a period of mental rest. In short, brain research shows how innovation and creativity happens — but not when we are intensely grappling mentally with a problem whose solution is evading us. Our memory just doesn’t work that way to build neuron pathways needed with innovation.

So here’s the question — how are we nurturing this with our AP/IB-packed extra-load recess-malnourished schedules? Who has the nerve to suggest these kinds of breaks much less test different models to take our mentally exhausted students down a new path? Remember Theodore Sizer and Horace’s Compromise (1984)? The concepts of coaching, constructivism, and student-centered instruction are now common-place. Student inquiry is also becoming part of the regular dialogue of the 21st Century schools. However, the institutions that nurtured Horace’s Compromise are very much in place with very little modification. Are these the vehicles to deliver the promises of the 21st Century student? Are we spitting in the ocean with our intense focus on the teacher level professional development without really deconstructing the system that has been at the heart of our problems? Do our current models for comprehensive reform go far enough to create a foundation with agility and responsiveness we need for our students? As Smiley puts it, are we giving our students “license to be weird” or are we stifling noncomformity by the very nature of our institutions and thus stifling innovation and creativity?

The dollars of innovation

Another interesting twist in Anastanoff’s story relates to the funding he did (and didn’t) receive in the process of overcoming the fundamental theoretical and mechanical barriers to the computer. His work was not backed by large grants — many times competing (and unsuccessful) alternatives were supported instead. However, this reality was at the root of his thoughtful progress. He frankly couldn’t afford to squander the opportunities he was given. (By the way, this is similar to the story of the Wright Brothers – their failed competition was heavily funded by a government grant).

So, in this world of grant-funded education research, are we good stewards of our opportunities? Does our grant system require the kind of accountability and investment from our funded partners that brings the committment needed to capitolize on the resources? Are we perpetuating mediocrity with our grant system or funding innovation? What policies and systems are needed to nuture rather than bureaucratize the process of investing in the public good through education? For instances, Smiley’s book emphasizes how the Land Grants for higher education paved the way for providing Antanasoff access to education. Are we thinking about the most effective financial models for supporting innovation in public education? What are the “Land Grant” opportunities that we are missing because we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Leadership for innovation

Another theme in Smiley’s account of Antanasoff’s professional life highlights the critical (and critically short-sighted) decisions made by leaders at various higher institutions along the way. Missed opportunities for patents, for grants, for hiring promising talent litter the path to realizing the dream of the computer. This brought to my mind my own experiences with Presidents, Provosts, and Deans throughout my career and it occurred to me that I haven’t done a lot of thinking about accountability systems and models for our higher education leaders. What are the standards and models for agile, responsive, collaborative, effective leadership? What are the career trajectories of these leaders and what kind of preparation is needed to cultivate a leader who promotes and fosters excellence and innovation educationally, administratively, and institutionally? How does an institution create an environment to support the leadership needed?

So, from my mind to yours, I’d love to hear your thoughts!


About eoyer

As an evaluation specialist, I provide a wide range of evaluation consulting services from the proposal phase through the final reporting stages of your grant or project. I specialize in working with educators and service providers who need external support for designing or implementing effective, meaningful evaluation solutions for their projects. My past undergraduate and graduate level teaching experience has provided me with the expertise to translate complex research concepts into understandable, applied terms for non-researchers.
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3 Responses to Supporting Innovation

  1. taconsulting says:

    When I worked at Iowa State, “Birthplace of the Electric Digital Computer”, Atanasoff and the Atanasoff-Berry computer he developed there were well remembered. His primary mistake may have been geographical — innovating at a small land-grant rather than a major research U or ivy league school, where he’d have the support needed for fundseeking. Another good book on his work is Atanasoff: Forgotten Father of the Computer (

    • Gini says:

      There is something to being at the right place to make something happen. John Mauchly did his early work at a small liberal arts college which was unable to support his ideas of building a computer. So he resigned a tenured position at Ursinus College to move to Phila. and become an untenured Instructor at the University of Penna. just so he could take advantage of Penn’s resources and reputation. It was the right place to be. Not only were others at Penn working in the field, but the Army also showed up to throw money at anyone who could speed up the process of calculating firing tables. You have to be willing to follow your dream. You can bet it wasn’t easy to give up a tenured spot at a nice college to become the low man on the totem pole far away from home. He could have stayed where he was and his family would have been happier. But Mauchly knew that if he wanted to accomplish what he was planning, he had to take the plunge … professionally, financially, socially and geographically.

  2. eoyer says:

    That’s actually the beauty and curse of Atanasoff’s education (and the Land Grant universities) — Harvard wasn’t interested but with some sweat, he was able to make it all work for him at Iowa State!

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