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Penguins, innovation and youth programs

By Margo Bowerman

I admit it. I am a science nerd. And while I thought history didn’t interest me, I’m geeking out on the history of innovation and technology development. Thank you Steven Johnson! I’m wondering how to apply what I’ve learned about technological innovations to the Minnesota 4-H youth development program.

We have an initiative to expand the reach of the program, while increasing its relevance to society and maintaining high program quality. Our Program Director Dorothy McCargo Freeman has challenged us to be innovative and creative.

Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Be curious, be observant and ask questions

Freeman refers to the book and video, Our Iceberg is Melting. In this book, a penguin colony faces the potential demise of the iceberg they call home. The story is a metaphor for how to significantly change an organization. In this story, the first penguin to notice there is something wrong was curious beyond typical penguin activities and investigated things that were of interest to him.



Innovations start with observing and identifying problems or potential problems.  Significant observations can rarely be made by an outside or casual observer.  Indeed, as Ernesto Sirolli describes in his TED talk, Want to help someone? Shut up and listen!, many well intentioned aid projects fail because they come with pre-conceived answers.

Do something

Siroulli’s talk indicates that doing something without proper information can make you look foolish. In my personal case I would argue that doing something is better than doing nothing.  My own self-consciousness about looking foolish has sometimes led to inaction, including avoiding the simple act of being present in the community I want to reach, thereby preventing me from even observing and listening.

In Steven Johnson’s book How We Got to Now, he describes how inventor Lee De Forest noticed that his gas lamp flame intensified when he was experimenting with pulses of electromagnetic energy.  His explanation for what was happening ended up being all wrong and he was ridiculed. But his invention led others to create the “first great breakthrough of the electronics revolution.” Without Lee De Forest doing something, you might not be reading this blog post online.

In Our Iceberg is Melting, the penguin who noticed something was wrong knew he might look foolish but he still acted. And as I’ve reached out to new communities, I’ve not been made to feel foolish.

Be courageous but also patient and humble

In Our Iceberg is Melting, when the Head Penguin realizes that the best way to ensure the safety of the colony is to consider a major change, he recognizes how hard it will be. “After living one way for so long, why should it be easy to think of a whole new way of life?,” he says. He asks his fellow penguins to keep their minds open.

In his TED Talk Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson, says great ideas take time and come from informal conversations. He relays the story of how GPS was born when two 20-something physics researchers had informal “what if” conversations as they listened to a hacked broadcast from Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. In his book, How We Got to Now, he tells of the 20-year gap between when Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville invented a way to record sound (but not play it back) and when some other inventors took Scott’s invention a step further and made a way to hear it.

As I consider how these concepts might apply to keeping 4-H relevant and growing, I think about the importance of recognizing that good ideas take time to grow
  • through consideration and exploration by those who have different views from us
  • through informal conversations about the ideas, and
  • through our humility to allow ideas to grow and morph.

Freeman acknowledges that many of us have “innovated within {our} spheres of influence” but challenges us to keep innovating in finding ways to help youth thrive. Do you do this in your youth program? How?

-- Margo Bowerman, Extension educator

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