Developing the courage to be incompetent

Carol J. Steiner


The Australian Government’s innovation statement, Backing Australia’s Ability (DEST 2001) committed them to creating 21,000 university places over five years in science, technology and mathematics courses that will ‘meet the needs of industry.’ But little research exists on how to prepare science students for industry work. One of many critical reviews of undergraduate science education in America (National Research Council, 1995, p. 4) reported:

The needs of the workforce are changing. This dynamism of the labour market is putting a premium on students who have a broad knowledge of different subjects, skill in synthesising and communicating information and the ability to work in teams. Students educated with a narrow disciplinary focus and with solitary learning styles can have difficulties in adjusting to such an environment. Indeed, such difficulties are a dominant theme in the complaints made by business leaders about contemporary undergraduate education.

This paper reports what one successful innovation consultancy thinks makes scientists valuable to industry. It is the product of a 3-year qualitative study of commercial innovation and innovators (Steiner 1996). The consultancy studied employs 90+ physicists, chemists, computer scientists, engineers and industrial designers. After presentation of its empirical data, this paper explores philosophically why it is difficult to produce innovators like this through conventional science education. It suggests it is difficult to produce many of the characteristics of innovating scientists because they are the characteristics of scientific incompetence. It further suggests it takes courage to be incompetent and it concludes with some preliminary suggestions for how science educators can tap into the student places created to support industry by helping science students find the courage to be incompetent.

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