How This Pandemic Can Help to Shape A Generation of Innovators


In this unprecedented, difficult time, we’re all glued to the news and the numbers, as well as concerned for how our children are handling…well, everything. STEM education expert Jennifer Flanagan shares her thoughts on how the pandemic could actually foster innovation in our kids.

One of the hardest things I have found about dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic is how to talk to my kids about what is going on. It is a complex and stressful topic and I know a lot of parents—me included—are wondering how to have a kid-friendly conversation about trauma. On crisis. On disease. But there’s also a silver lining to COVID-19 that often gets forgotten: innovation and empathy.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve been craving positivity to balance out the negativity of the news cycle — a little Mary Poppins-esque spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Not only is this an optimal time to discuss innovation with your family, but it’s also a spoonful of sugar atop some otherwise tough topics.

We hear the term “innovation” all the time, and we are constantly reminded of the fact that it’s important for pretty much every aspect of our world right now—the economy, technology, agriculture, healthcare, you name it. That’s why it’s easy to glaze over such a commonly used word. But the significance of innovation has never been more evident than it is now. Heroic stories of people coming together to solve problems in new and interesting ways are everywhere as we battle this pandemic. We need only to pay attention to them.

As parents, this is an opportunity to show our kids how the innovative work being done now is an example of what their generation can do to solve global challenges in the future. Sound daunting to explain? I promise, it’s not!

When talking with my two girls, ages 7 and 11, I like to find and share positive news stories about big companies they recognize pivoting to help hospitals in this time of need. For instance, Canada Goose is producing medical gowns; car companies (Ford, GM, Tesla) and sports companies like Bauer are producing Personal Protective Equipment; their favourite clothing stores are making masks; and Labatt (the beer Mom and Dad sometimes drink) is producing hand sanitizer. These all highlight deep empathy for people’s needs, and human resilience in the face of mass adversity. These actions are all prime, real examples of innovation, and ones that our kids can understand and appreciate.

I’m also encouraging parents to share stories of technological innovations with their kids—such as how artificial intelligence (AI) is being leveraged to explore the many unknowns of COVID-19. A quick Google search and you’ll find examples of things like scientists turning coronavirus into music to aid research (applied STEAM — really cool), or the use of robotic nurses to help doctors in Italy.

If stories like these aren’t inspiring, I don’t know what is. Let’s use this time of resilience and creativity to inspire our kids, and as motivation to engage them in STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) activities at home that will prepare them to become  this country’s next generation of great innovators.

While there isn’t much we can control about COVID19, we can influence the way it impacts our children. We can focus on the doom and gloom or we can focus on the bright side. To bring back the Mary Poppins metaphor (thank you, Disney+), we can focus on the “medicine” that is coronavirus, or we can focus on the fact that researchers in Queensland are turning sugar cane into face masks. By talking to our kids about innovation in simple and relevant ways, they’ll be better equipped to take on the future — and we as parents will be better equipped to help them take on today.

Here are some great STEAM at home resources to get you started:

Jennifer Flanagan is a thought leader and advocate for inclusive science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in Canada. As President and CEO of Actua, Jennifer leads a national network engaging 400,000 youth and 10,000 teachers each year across Canada. Actua is known for its impact on underserved audiences working extensively with girls and young women, Indigenous youth, rural and Arctic communities and youth facing socio-economic challenges.

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