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Innovation is more than creating new things

By Team ISTE
June 27, 2016
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Why is innovation always about creating new things?

Ruha Benjamin, a keynote speaker at ISTE 2016, is working to find the real-world answer to that and other philosophical questions that impact education.

An assistant professor in the African-American Studies Department at Princeton University, Benjamin specializes in the interdisciplinary study of science, medicine, biotechnology, race-ethnicity and gender, health, and biopolitics. And although it sounds complicated, people are always at the core of Benjamin's research and her decisions.

“We often think that technology development happens over here and that it has social impacts downstream. My work is trying to say that relationship is reversed; there is a social context that produces technologies,” she says. “The human experience shouldn’t be an aftereffect but built into the design of technologies. It’s a human enterprise; we need all kinds of humans to be at the table to decide what kind of material world we want to create that is good for all humans.”

And making that kind of investment early on creates a passion, which is why Benjamin recommends meeting students where they are instead of asking them to come outside of themselves. For example, when it comes to preparing girls and culturally diverse students for STEM-based careers – a field where women and minorities are woefully under-represented, she suggests that instead of trying to fix the proverbial leaky pipeline, we should be questioning the pipe itself.

Take Christopher Emdin, a Columbia University professor who set Newton’s laws to rhyme and eventually launched a pilot program to teach science in New York City schools using hip hop songs.

“Let’s get away from the idea that students have to lose themselves to gain a certain set of skills. We should instead value the knowledge they bring to the table and build on that to make it feel more seamless,” Benjamin says. “It doesn’t have to feel alien or like you are a sellout for doing it or cutting yourself off from your home community.”

Her own Black to the Future workshops look at the relationship between fiction, storytelling and cutting-edge science as a way to give students a gateway to a subject they may have dismissed in the past.

As the leader of the Black to the Future incubator project — which includes workshops, academic courses, interdisciplinary conferences and publications that dive into designing “socio-technical imaginaries” — Benjamin is exploring why there’s lopsided investment in material technologies and what society can do about it.

“We like to think that innovation equals progress. (Instead) we have tools and techniques that have created problems,” she says. But if we go back to the generic idea of tech as tools, the deeper progress could be endless.

“What about race as a social technology tool creates division in the world? What are other social technologies that bring about justice and equality? It’s about expanding the idea of what technology is and then taking the rein to build new things,” she says.

Benjamin will give her ISTE keynote address Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Bellco Theatre. Before the keynote, ISTE CEO Brian Lewis and ISTE Board Chair Kecia Ray will talk with Hadi Partovi, an entrepreneur, investor and co-founder of and the international Hour of Code campaign, and LeVar Burton, actor, director, producer, author, and co-founder of the Reading Rainbow app.  

Don’t miss Ruha Benjamin’s keynote address at ISTE 2016.