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Postcards from a road trip to innovation: one professor's sabbatical: what is a road trip to innovation?


Precious moments in life for an educator are taking time to reflect upon his or her teaching practices to evaluate effectiveness and overall impact. Often this reflection is a weekly if not a daily process for educators using a reflective practitioner model (SchOn, 1983). For professors, many universities have opportunities for tenured faculty to take sabbaticals that allow them to take a semester off from teaching to provide reflection time, pursue special education experiences, or in some cases teach abroad as a visiting professor. These opportunities allow the educator a chance to learn from others as well as share expertise and build partnerships. The following is an account of my experiences traveling to the Silicon Valley and universities on the East Coast and lessons learned along the way. In the spring of 2015, I was awarded a sabbatical to investigate innovation practices from corporate America as well as progressive engineering programs. My road trip stops included the design firm IDEO, Stanford's d. School, Apple Headquarters, Tesla, and Google. I have signed nondisclosure agreements with each company, so I will not be revealing any trade secrets. I will, however, provide descriptions of the general conversations and will use pseudonyms when referencing corporate personnel unless individuals provided permission to use their names. My East Coast stops included Olin College, Needham, MA and Worchester Polytechnic Institute. The final outcome was the creation of a course for the new Purdue Polytechnic Institute: a transformation of the old College of Technology at Purdue into an educational program responding to the needs of a 21st century technology workforce.

What is a road trip to innovation? Innovation is one of those words that has so many meanings that effectiveness of the term is diminished by the inability to provide a concise definition. However, innovation is clearly a prize sought by every progressive company seeking to gain position and prominence in a global economy. For years I have been reading about the innovation approaches of high-level technology companies in the Silicon Valley. The 2011 Steve Jobs biography provided an acclaimed account of Apple's approach to innovation. Other innovation accounts have come from the design firm IDEO in the account of their design-thinking approach to innovation in the book, The Art of Innovation (Kelley, 2001). Many technology educators have been inspired by ABC's Nightline's "The Deep Dive" approach to brainstorming that featured IDEO's design team redesigning the shopping cart in 48 hours (ABC, 1999). Through these experiences, many educators were inspired to help students participate in similar collaborative efforts to brainstorm, conduct fieldwork, and create new design solutions.

As I reflected upon my own approach to teaching innovation and my desire to transform our programs at Purdue with emphasis on innovation, I realized that I needed firsthand accounts of innovation practices in the corporate world. I believe the lessons I learned will be helpful to anyone seeking to teach knowledge and skills that prepare people to become innovators. Each source I consult suggests that members of the 21st century workforce must advance in universal problem-solving skills, be team players, and be effective communicators to begin to contribute to the innovation space.

Innovation Lesson Number #1--Design Matters

The first stop on my Silicon Valley trip was Apple, Inc. As I drove up to Apple's headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop Drive, in Cupertino, CA I could not help but feel a little like a kid going to Disney World for the first time. I have read so much about Apple's approach to innovation and its leader Steve Jobs that I was somewhat starstruck at finally making my own visit to the headquarters--an epicenter of innovation. I met an Apple employee by the name of Mark (pseudonym) who has worked since 2007 in the manufacturing design sector of the company. The first thing Mark was able to confirm for me was the organizational structure with which Apple creates technology products. I asked Mark if it was true that Jonathan Ive's design team leader is the driving force behind Apple's product line. Mark confirmed that at Apple, industrial designers take the lead in creating products--a unique distinction in the Apple approach to product development. Mark took out a pen and drew a diagram of the general design structure of Apple (Figure 1). He indicated that he was using terms that the general public would understand, not necessarily the terms used by Apple. Ive works in the sector of the company often described as industrial design.

You may have heard the quote "Form ever follows function" (Sullivan, 1896, p. 408) by famous architect Louis Sullivan at the turn of the 20th century when architects were bound by constraints of modern skyscrapers. Well, at Apple it appears that function follows form. Industrial designers first consider how the final product will look and feel for the user, then these "forms" are given to the product design team and the manufacturing design team to configure the components, systems, user interface platforms, and the many materials to bring the "form" to life. Designers take the lead from the industrial design unit and, as a result, according to Mark, this is how Apple products look, feel, and function differently than their competitors' products--because they start with the ideal form first instead of wrapping an envelope around an existing system. Sir Ive's industrial design team shares a design idea with the product design and manufacturing design teams, who in turn begin to wrestle with how the product can be built to fit the form. Working under these constraints is challenging for the product and manufacturing teams because typically the size constraints are compact, materials capabilities are stretched, and color and textures are complex. Manufacturing designers at Apple must push the envelope on materials used and component configurations to make them fit the designed solution form. Mark indicated that most competing technology companies use a more typical approach to manufacturing because it is easier to create an envelope than to push materials and components into new shapes and spaces, but that is the uniqueness of Apple and why they are a leader in innovation. "Innovation is in the details" Mark said when he took me to the Apple store and showed me a number of Apple products featuring tremendous detail of the material processing. "See the Apple logo on the back of this iPhone--this is one texture and color that must be manufactured to be flush with other textures on the surface of the phone; the glass on the front needs to come in contact with the plastic and metal precisely to provide one continuous surface. These are details that a customer appreciates; although they may not know why when buying the product, they certainly know the unique feel of the product." Mark ran his fingers over the iPhone's surface and said that, while the general public has no idea how much work goes into making these products, they can often feel and see the difference. In Jobs' account, Apple product packaging is also carefully designed, so much so that the opening of a new product feels like an event. There is elegance in these details of innovation.

For technology educators, teaching students design and innovation requires that students still learn about material processing and learning to investigate how products are made with attention to such detail. Pink (2005) built a case that design thinking and an eye on design is necessary for all citizens living in the 21st century and working within a globalized economy. Material testing should continue to be taught within technology classes as a way to help students use materials properly when creating prototypes and designing new solutions.

Innovation Lesson Number #2--Innovation Produces New Problems

My next stop was Palo Alto, CA and Tesla headquarters. I met a Tesla engineer named Brian (pseudonym) who shared some general information about the various models of Tesla electric cars currently under production. He shared examples of the struggles to establish a new company in the car-manufacturing sector. There were many lessons to be learned from a pioneering company like Tesla but none more compelling than the problems they were having with noise. Tesla was not struggling with typical engine noise or road noise, but rather the lack of noise. Humans have become accustomed to vehicle noises when driving, riding, and as pedestrians, so electric car owners must adjust to the void of traditional engine noise. Pedestrians are at risk because they often cannot hear electric cars approaching. Additionally, Brian shared that Tesla car owners often "hear" noises and believe that the new car is having motor problems. He said that Tesla often replaces motor parts prematurely because the owner is convinced of part failure. Tesla worked to solve this because the innovation created new and unexpected problems, illustrating the need to prepare designers to look for such problems with new innovation and work to find ways to prepare users for the experiences with the innovation. IDEO featured an example of this in the "Deep Dive" when Tom Kelley indicated that sometimes innovations require "training the user" to respond appropriately (Kelley, 2001). Technology educators should consider how to help students learn to forecast new problems created with new innovation, as designers must consider how to help the customer adjust to these new experiences.

Innovation Lesson Number #3--Locating Intersections Through Collaboration

Several times during my road trip, the concept of the "Medici Effect" was discussed--an approach to innovation made popular by the book of the same title (Johansson, 2006). The Medici Effect is the idea that innovation can occur when concepts from one field intersect with another, creating a new approach or new technology. Mark at Apple shared that, in his line of work overseeing a team, it was his responsibility to connect the right people with others who are studying similar but often unrelated projects. Mark's example at Apple regarding the Medici Effect-like collaborative intersection was on an Apple project under exploration that involved "feel" technology like the touch screens that are common in today's Apple products. He shared that Apple was at the time exploring new areas of "feel" technology and indicated that he could not disclose any more details regarding this project development but indicated that it could lead to a whole new line of innovations. He indicated that human interactions with the technology will continue to involve "touch" technology, so a member of his team wanted to learn more about the science behind human touch. Mark connected his teammate with another Apple employee who has worked on thumbprint security projects and had learned many lessons in the science behind the human nervous system and complexity of human touch. Collaboratively, these Apple employees shared all that they were learning regarding the neurological and biological sciences as they relate these facts to the emerging touch technology. There is something significant about the fact that these two came together with different projects in mind but will help each other to achieve their next innovation. As a technology educator, if you ever had doubt about requiring students to work in pairs or teams on design projects, Mark would likely suggest remaining steadfast in helping students learn how to collaborate with classmates.

Thomas Edison believed so strongly in collaboration that he paid cooks to cater midnight buffets for all his employees at Menlo Park (Stross, 2008). At one of these midnight meals Edison discussed his struggle with sound experiments. He turned to his assistant holding a sound-generating part in his hand and he realized that he could use the diaphragm with a needle to record sound vibrations and then play them back by reversing the process. Stross, author of Wizard of Menlo Park, records that all of Edison's employees immediately got up at once and quickly tested out his theory--and that day the phonograph was born. Creating a culture of collaboration was important enough for Edison to pay for midnight meals, and it led to a new innovation. You may have read about the well-documented Google HQ cafeteria, but the family style "breaking of bread" atmosphere at IDEO was unique. I also learned from Dennis Boyle about "Souper Tuesday," an IDOE (soup) lunch talk with employees reporting on recent design projects or other design topics of interest. The lesson here is that collaboration is critical to bringing innovative minds together. A relaxed atmosphere, perhaps through sharing a meal while discussing design ideas, is a key strategy used by innovators. Putting students in a relaxed state of shared minds is key to the nature of collaboration and strategy in brainstorming (Mentzer, Farrington, & Tennenhouse, 2015). I admire secondary technology educators who create dedicated spaces in their classrooms for group collaboration and inspire young minds to dream.

Innovation Lesson Number #4--People Still Matter

Stanford's d. School and IDEO are well known for Human-Centered Design (HCD) approaches to innovation. However, my visit to Olin College in Needham, MA further illustrated the need for teaching human-centered design approaches to innovation. Olin College was created in 1997 by the F. W. Olin Foundation for the advancement of engineering education in America (http:// The book, The Whole New Engineer, documents the creation of Olin College as well as University of Illinois, the Foundry (Goldberg & Summerville, 2014). The educational innovations at Olin that stood out to me were the various approaches to design education embedded within students' four years of learning, Specifically, the second-year design course titled User-Oriented Collaborative Design (UOCD), in which students are not given a design problem to solve but asked to identify extreme user groups to study such as extreme mountain climbers or EMTs, firefighters, or flight instructors. Students generate these lists of various users for possible study. A typical UOCD class can begin with a list of over 90 user groups and then be narrowed down by students and instructor. Students are then grouped by interest in teams of 4-6. Students focus on learning about these user groups and framing their discoveries into possible design solutions for the groups. UOCD class not only reiterates the need for studying people but also builds within the students' key listening skills when working with clients, including asking the right questions and carefully studying how individuals use current technologies and where problems occur. These skills are fundamental in the second design course taught at Olin. For the secondary technology educator, the key lesson to learn is that people still matter in innovation development. We sometimes get so fixated on the technology that we ignore the user. There are hundreds of cases of failed designs that have occurred because designers forgot the human side of technology.

Innovation lesson Number #5--Become a Risk Taker: Learn from Failure, Don't Fear It

One message keeps recurring from multiple sources regarding innovation: "learn from failure." Tom Kelley at IDEO shared a variety of insights about innovation, but one that stood out was his general concern for young people's attitudes regarding failure and how our current educational systems focus too much on high-stakes testing. He shared that students often think much of life is about getting the "right" answer. Failure can become the best educator. Failure is OK if we allow it to teach us something, and failure must be embraced by those who are brave enough to take risks--innovators are risk-takers. Fear of failure can stifle creativity, a well-documented concept in the book Creative Confidence (Kelley & Kelley, 2013). Fear of failure was also mentioned at Apple. Mark shared that Apple culture provides many degrees of freedom for Apple innovators to conduct experiments and pursue research projects that may not lead to conclusive answers or new product innovations. These technologists set out to embrace a journey of the unknown, and often failures occur along the way--but this is also the pathway to new innovations. Apple realizes that often new product ideas, processes, or materials cannot function as they had hoped--appearing to be failed designs. Innovation requires a mindset that hundreds of ideas may only produce one marketable idea. Failure along the way is an option, and as Mark expressed, failure helps them to see things they would not have discovered without the so-called "failed" research, experiment, or design. Embracing an unknown journey of discovery is at the heart of the innovation culture at Apple. The Apple approach embraces the idea that it is OK to design something that currently can't be built and push manufacturing designers to learn how to build it anyway. Matt stated that "Innovators are people who are smart enough to know what doesn't work but crazy enough to try it anyway." I was shocked that failure as an educator was also mentioned at Stanford's d. school, Olin College, and Worchester Polytechnic Institute. It is critical to learn the lessons provided by the failed experience.

Students need to learn how to approach a failed experience as a valuable source of information. Innovation experts believe educators should prepare students for failure and teach them how to leverage these experiences into learning opportunities. Taking time to reflect on what the failure is telling them and how it prepares them for the next opportunity is key to innovation, As a technology educator, do you provide your students with opportunities to reflect upon their failures? Do you require reflection entries in engineer's notebooks (Kelley, 2011)?


In closing, my road trip yielded many more than five lessons in innovation, but these are the key lessons. Upon my return to Purdue's campus, I had to respond to these lessons and generate some meaningful outcomes, and the voices of innovation kept speaking to me about how to best educate the next generation of innovators. I had an opportunity to capitalize on the lessons learned and create a new course to address a missing element in design thinking. My greatest concern is that often students are not critical thinkers, struggle to properly frame problems, and do not collaborate with others to generate new solutions. I realized that students would never understand the Medici Effect naturally or develop an eye for innovation without requiring that they learn to listen, ask, and see by studying people. Students might never be able to frame design problems if they are always given the problem statement up front. I also realized that IDEO, Stanford, and Olin were using techniques from Anthropology to understand the human culture surrounding technology as a method to create better technology. IDEO calls these techniques "empathy studies," but they are really ethnographic approaches to anthropology fieldwork. IDEO empathy techniques allow the designer to relate to the user by listening, observing, and capturing the user's story to be used as a source of data to inform the design process. I decided that I wanted to create a course with anthropology instead of just using ethnographic approaches. The new course is a second-year design course offered in the Purdue Polytechnic Institute and is co-taught with faculty from the Anthropology department. The course was first piloted in the Spring of 2016. The course is called TLI 36700 Design and Innovation I, and the course description is as follows:

   The design and innovation learning experience provides
   students with opportunities to engage in ethnographic studies
   of human and technology interactions (from everyday to
   extreme users) to develop problem-scoping skills necessary
   to identify and define problems to develop appropriate design
   solutions. Additionally, students will learn how to identify
   opportunities for innovation that emerge when designers
   carefully observe and listen to humans using technology and/
   or experiencing problems with current technology.

My sabbatical provided many lessons in innovation, and I see no better group of K-12 educators to help young people learn to become innovators than technology educators. It is my hope that you too can learn from a Road Trip to Innovation.


American Broadcasting Company. (1999, July 13). Nightline: IDEO's deep dive.

Goldberg, D. E. & Somerville, M. (2014). A whole new engineer. Douglas, Ml: ThreeJoy Associates, Inc.

Kelley, T. (2001). The art of innovation: Lessons in creativity from IDEO, America's leading design firm. New York: Doubleday.

Kelley, T. (2011). Engineer's notebook--A design assessment tool. Technology and Engineering Teacher 70(7), 30-35.

Kelley. T. & Kelley, D. (2013) Creative confidence: Unleashing the creative potential within us all. New York: Crown Business.

Mentzer, N., Farrington, S., & Tennenhouse, J, (2015). Strategies for teaching brainstorming in design education. Technology and Engineering Teacher, 74(8), 8-13.

Pink, D. H. (2005). A whole new mind: Why right brainers will rule the future. London: Penguin Books, Ltd.

Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books.

Sullivan, L. H. (1896, March). The tall office building artistically considered. Lippincott's Magazine, 403-409. Philadelphia, PA: J. B. Lippincott Co.

Johansson, F. (2004). The Medici Effect: Breakthrough insights at the intersection of ideas, concepts, and cultures. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Publishing,

Stross, R. E. (2007). The wizard of Menlo Park: How Thomas Edison invented the modern world. New York: Random House, Inc.

Todd R. Kelley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the College of Technology at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN. He can be reached at trkellev&


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Title Annotation:feature article
Author:Kelley, Todd R.
Publication:Technology and Engineering Teacher
Date:Nov 1, 2016
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