By Carrie Taylor, Education and Outreach Director

Innovators like Steve Jobs don’t just happen — they are grown. The question is how? The simple answer is: young minds must be challenged and engaged. Challenging students to create their future is one way to invite young minds to innovate and to engage them in creative thinking and entrepreneurship. The world needs solutions for achieving global sustainability and products that benefit humanity. What about asking a high school student to develop these solutions?

For the first time in history, young people have the tools of creation and implementation in their hands. The question becomes, what responsibility do they have to use these tools to improve the world and to make a positive contribution through the gifts they received? After all, their abundant inheritance is not limited to the benefits of industrialization, mobile devices, free online education and collaboration tools. No, their “gifts” also include global health epidemics, dwindling natural resources and environmental disasters of unprecedented proportions – all theirs for the fixing. Yes, advances in technology have enhanced humanity’s ability to more efficiently exploit natural resources. Yet this improvement alone isn’t enough to provide for the earth’s growing population and the rapidly increasing demands for higher standards of living around the globe.

Many of our current and future world innovators are still in high school and they are already hard at work creating solutions to major world challenges. The Conrad Foundation’s Spirit of Innovation Challenge, presented by Lockheed Martin, invites teams of students ages 13-18 worldwide to use science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), along with creativity, collaboration, and entrepreneurship to develop products and services to address some of the world’s greatest problems from malnutrition to space exploration. These young people are researching cures for cancer, developing community-wide interventions for poverty and creating products used in everyday life.

The annual business and technical plan competition offers teachers, parents, and afterschool coordinators a relevant and dynamic way to teach STEM. Supporting the teams’ efforts are world-renowned scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs who work with the students as virtual mentors. From August through April students are working in the areas of aerospace and aviation, cybertechnology and security, energy and environment, and health and nutrition to create what they believe are commercially viable products to benefit society.

For the last seven years, teams from all around the globe – from the U.S. to the Isle of Man in Britain to Saudi Arabia and Shanghai – worked to become conscientious innovators and develop products that will change the world. These kids are designing the future, and continue to demonstrate the future is in capable hands. Just look at some of the cool concepts they developed. The results will amaze you.

In 2012, five high school students from Miami developed a new clean water technology that helped a clinic serving a population of 500,000 in Nigeria. Before the instillation of the students’ purification system, babies born in this clinic were washed with dirty water. Now, with the help of these students, children can be brought into the world and washed in fresh, clean water. The students are preparing to deliver five more systems to remote areas in need of clean water systems.

This Challenge season, more than 385 new product ideas were conceptualized including fuel gauges for hydrogen cells, bionic hands, green barrier environmental systems, bracelets that serve as therapies for children with autism and online security programs. Over the course of a few short months, the students’ with support of a teacher/coach and industry mentors created solutions that can take the market by storm. Just think of the possibilities if this innovation generation was challenged like this every day at school.

“We believe young people are the solution. They have the skills and the desire to develop creative answers to some of our biggest problems,” said Nancy Conrad, founder and chairman of the Conrad Foundation. Nancy created the Spirit of Innovation Challenge to celebrate the life of astronaut Pete Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon and his three-decade pursuit of innovation and entrepreneurship. She went on to say, “By giving them a way to demonstrate their abilities and the access to mentors who can guide them, we provide an opportunity for students to add context to the content they learn in the classroom.”

To create a generation of forward-thinking innovators, there is a need to get students excited about STEM education by getting them involved in programs that provide context and practical applications of the knowledge they gain in the classroom. This is how innovators like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg were grown. These global powerhouses took their knowledge of STEM, combined it with innovation and entrepreneurship and created world-changing breakthroughs which have forever altered the way knowledge is valued, shared and utilized. “As a teacher that has been fortunate enough to have teams make it to the summit level of the competition over multiple years, I can say that the process has changed my approach to teaching,” said Roger Kassebaum, Milken Community High School and 2011 Nancy Conrad Innovative Teacher of the Year.

“Most students are secretly ‘itching’ to try out their existing knowledge and skill sets on real problems, but rarely do adults deem them capable or prepared enough to deal with existing real-world problems,” Kassebaum said. “My experience is that the students will set standards higher for themselves than you ever would. They will be creative, innovative, collaborative and work harder than they would for any grade or assignment you would require of them.” The finalists of the 2013-2014 Spirit of Innovation Challenge are on their way to Houston in April for the last round of competition. At the 2014 Innovation Summit they will see firsthand how innovation and entrepreneurship will help society continue to explore the universe, discover cures for disease and become good stewards of the world we share with our global neighbors.

Finalist teams will present their product concepts April 7-8 before a panel of industry experts, leading entrepreneurs, government officials and world-renowned scientists at NASA Johnson Space Center. Products will be evaluated for technical content and marketplace viability. The public is invited to view their presentations via live stream at As a testament to the quality of the teams’ projects, some Conrad Challenge students have received international awards and delivered their products and prototypes to third world countries. They also attended the White House Science Fair, presented at the United Nations Rio+20 Global Sustainability conference, displayed prototypes at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, and so much more.

Many of the teams are seeking patents to secure their intellectual property rights for their products and services in preparation for their next phase of development. Other students are archived into the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and have been recognized by the Chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

The Conrad Foundation strives to ensure the outstanding ideas of these students are recognized beyond the Innovation Summit. From meeting Bill Nye the Science Guy to attending global summits, the Foundation finds opportunities to promote their innovative ideas. Students are featured in magazines, radio spots, television and the internet. Connecting students to the wider world around them and celebrating the success of their innovations is one of the best ways to keep young people focused on achieving their goals and brining their products to market. “There are a lot of competitions out there that say ‘You can do it!’, but the great thing about the Conrad Challenge is that it tells students not only ‘You can do it!’ but ‘here’s how…’,” said Madison Jones, Team Infinity, winner aerospace and aviation 2011-2012 Conrad Challenge.

The Foundation supplies participants with training on innovation and entrepreneurship through a digital resource of videos, webinars, documents and forums. In addition teachers, engineers and executive mentors support the teams directly (in person or by utilizing a social network) as the students progress through the idea-research-implementation competition phases. The free program is supported by a website (available in 60 languages) which enables anyone in the world with internet or mobile access to compete for the $10,000 award in each category.

Seen in isolation the story of an amazing innovation or discovery by a teenager seems like an outlier, a one-off. But when you see them every day, over and over again around the world, you soon recognize it as our new reality. You quickly realize the ability of teens to grasp complicated problems and if given the tools and guidance, they come up with equally elegant solutions. You also begin to understand that these youth are not all prodigies with some rare genetic gift. Genius is a state of mind, not a trait of brain capacity and any teen can get their genius on under the right circumstances.

For many young people, entrepreneurship can become the bridge between science education and application of product solutions to global problems. The sooner teens are able to learn the key strategies of innovation, prototyping and commercialization the sooner they will have the ability to solve problems for their community. The “cool” factor of STEM really shines through when harnessed to develop sustainable solutions for global problems. This STEM enhancement program transforms education through innovation, mentors young leaders, creates local community impact, supports social investment, inspires international collaboration and develops sustainable solutions for global problems.

Student-driven innovation is the new standard through this program. For example, one team developed a nutrition bar that states it will fuel brainpower. It was flown up to and consumed on the International Space Station because it fulfilled all the nutritional and microgravity requirements for NASA astronauts. In the development process the two girls who created the product discovered a patentable process for stabilizing DHA that if licensed could help fund their college education. While, what the girls accomplished is commendable, they are one of many participating teams determined to use their imagination to improve their world.

Another team from a public high school in one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in Philadelphia successfully created a low carbon emissions and ultra-high efficiency alternative fuel vehicle which competed against collegiate and corporate teams. A month after winning the Spirit of Innovation Challenge the team went on to win the 100 mile race at the Green Grand Prix with their vehicle reaching 160 miles per gallon. They also received personal praise from President Obama and they were recently featured on PBS’s Frontline in “Fast Times at West Philly High.”

Yet another team received an invitation in collaboration with the U.S. Department of State to attend the Rio+20, United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. The team created a portable water purification system that could be used in disaster relief or areas without infrastructure for clean water resources. So innovative is their product, they were recently awarded the 2012 Heart of Haiti award by the national parliament and plans are in place to distribute the water purification device throughout the country.

No matter the domain in which they choose to create, these youth have the ambition combined with the newly learned skills of entrepreneurship to make a real difference in the world throughout their lifetime. To learn more about the Spirit of Innovation Challenge, or how you can support through service or financial contributions, please visit