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Technology, Computer Games Take Back Seat
to Human Element in Science Education

Cambridge, MA, January 10, 2000 — When it comes to their science education, American teenagers are missing their parents' support above all else. The hottest technology, games and gadgets — while clearly important to American teenagers — cannot replace the value of parental encouragement, involvement and mentoring at home.

This is a key finding of the Lemelson-MIT Program's latest Invention Index™, an annual nationwide survey of Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating. This year's study, conducted with Roper Starch, asked teens for their advice to both parents and schools on ways to get kids more interested and involved in science and invention. Their responses underscore the importance of parental support to teens' success in school.

The study contradicts society's image of teens as isolated technophiles, according to economist and Lemelson-MIT Board Chairman Professor Lester C. Thurow: "As our children know, the latest technology is the oldest technology — brain power plus motivation. Our study shows that kids still want attention, support and guidance from their parents above all else."

More than half of teens surveyed (55%) say encouragement from parents to do well in science is an excellent idea, compared to only 35% who say "buying computers, technology and educational equipment" is an excellent idea. More students selected parental encouragement as "excellent advice" to either parents or schools than any other category of advice included in the study. The study also indicates areas in which teens think schools can improve. The most room for improvement, teens say, lies in the equipment, labs and computers.

Colin Twitchell, an "Invention Mentor" for the Lemelson-MIT Program and director of the Lemelson Assistive Technology Center at Hampshire College, concurs with the teens' responses: "Spending quality time with your children — which can be very difficult to do these days — is extremely important. Without the support, interest and encouragement that parents can give to their children to foster creativity and inventiveness, the inventive, creative nature thatπs inherent in kids will eventually disappear."

Besides offering advice to parents and schools on getting young people interested in learning, teens were also asked to predict future career paths for themselves and for the next generation of youth, and to choose which American inventors they think were most influential on society.

The study revealed some surprising gender-specific choices and career outlooks. For example, while boys (26%) are significantly more interested than girls (4%) in being inventors today, 40% of teens think there will be equal interest among boys and girls ten years from now. Such findings provide clues about career areas where young people could especially benefit from role models and mentors.

Also of note was the interest that teens — and girls in particular — conveyed in the areas of science, genetics and medicine. Surprisingly, medicine tops the list of professions that girls select as their first choice with 35%, but is only the third choice among boys at 23%. Equally surprising is "inventor" as the boysπ top career pick with 26%. The strong showing by these scientific fields suggests that science may be having as much — or maybe more — of an impact on teens as computers and technology. Overall, "reporter" ranked just slightly better than "politician" as a future career among teens. It was the last choice among boys (3%) and only fourth among girls (9%).

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Teens were also asked to choose the inventor or innovator they feel has changed the world the most. Benjamin Franklin is considered the most influential (39%) of a group comprised of Franklin, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford and Madame Marie Curie. A similar proportion cites Edison (34%), while one-quarter choose Gates (28%) and Bell (25%). In terms of the importance of these innovators, boys and girls seem to agree at the same levels. However, girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are twice more likely than girls aged 12 to 14 to cite Bill Gates as the innovator who has changed the world the most (40% vs. 21%).

The Lemelson-MIT Invention Index™ has explored Americans' perceptions about inventing and innovating since 1996. Previous topics that have been covered include:

  • Which inventions Americans could not live without (1996)
  • What attributes inventors have (1996)
  • Whether certain inventions make life easier or more complex (1997)
  • Which areas of research & development American taxpayers support (1998)
  • Which are the most profitable career areas for inventors (1999)

The 2000 Lemelson-MIT Invention Index Survey was conducted by Roper Starch among a nationally representative sample of 503 12-to-17 year-olds. Interviews were conducted via telephone during December 2-5, 1999. The data were weighted to correct any imbalances due to sampling. The margin of error for the entire sample is +/- 4 percentage points. The margin of error for subgroups is higher.

Based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Lemelson-MIT Program was established in 1994 by the late independent inventor Jerome H. Lemelson and his wife, Dorothy. The Program celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards including the world's largest for invention, the $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize. The Program encourages young Americans to pursue careers in the fields of science, engineering, technology and entrepreneurship. The Lemelson-MIT Program is funded by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports other invention initiatives at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Hampshire College, the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance and the University of Nevada, Reno.

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