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Teachers' Guide: Innovation
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Use these activities with any part of the series or this Web site.

The activities are grouped into 4 categories: civics, history, economics, and geography. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


Economics | Geography | Civics | History

  1. Government has been involved in American innovation from the start: John Fitch tried to get support for his steamboat from the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, and these same delegates wrote protections for inventors into Section 8 of the Constitution's First Article. More recently, in 2004, a division of the Department of Defense offered a $1 million prize to any innovators able to construct an autonomous ground vehicle that would win a grueling race across the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. But government involvement has drawn controversy as well, with some arguing that too many regulations stifle the entrepreneurial spirit. Ask your class to research and then list ways in which government has tried to promote innovation over the years. Then divide the class into two groups.

    The assignment for the first group is: imagine you are a legislator who wants to encourage innovation in your home state. What sort of problems do today's innovators face? How might government be able to address them? Draft a law that would help innovators. How many of its provisions do you think exist in current legislation? Can you think of any problems your law might create?

    The second group should identify a problem that government involvement has created in the area of innovation and draft a petition to your state or national legislature explaining why and how they should fix it. Are there any good reasons for keeping the law or policy you'd like changed? If not, why was it adopted in the first place?

    Now bring the two groups together. What do you think the proper role of government in the area of innovation should be? Does government currently do too little or too much?


Economics | Geography | Civics | History

  1. Although innovators came to America from around the world and settled across the country, certain geographical patterns do exist. Take the 64 innovators profiled in the Who Made America? section of this Web site and divide them up equally among your students. Have each student write a label for the innovator giving their name, chief innovation, birth and death dates, and where they worked. Then place the labels on a map of the United States. What strikes you about the distribution of innovators? How does the distribution change over time? What geographical factors might account for the placement of entrepreneurs?

    Now divide the class into four groups and have each research and then give an oral presentation on an innovator from your home state or local community who is not on the Web site's list. If the entrepreneur is still alive, find out if the students can interview him or her. In addition to describing this person and their innovation, have the students look into why this innovator chose their state or community as a place to work. What aspects of your community may attract innovators?


Economics | Geography | Civics | History

  1. The series highlights the many ways in which entrepreneurs have changed American society for the better -- but not all innovations have a uniformly positive impact. For example, while the telegraph unquestionably revolutionized communications in America, it has been argued that by allowing for the national distribution of what would have otherwise remained local political speeches, it also increased sectional tension and may have contributed to the coming of the Civil War.

    Divide your class into six groups and have each select one of the following innovations to put on trial: the Colt revolver, the cargo container, the Barbie doll, McDonald's restaurants, the department store, and the cotton gin. Each group should further subdivide into equal numbers of students who will argue as two groups, the Pros and the Cons. After researching the impact of their innovation, each group of students will conduct a trial in front of the entire class. First, the Pros will give a presentation about the specific ways in which their innovation has benefitted society. How has it improved our lives as Americans? Then the Cons will explain how society has been hurt by the innovation. Both sides should try and imagine life without the particular innovation and the ways in which society might be better or worse. At the end of each debate, the class as a whole should vote as to whether the innovation in question was "worth it." In making that assessment, what standards should be used?


Economics | Geography | Civics | History

  1. One of the themes of the television series is the relationship between an innovator's personality and his or her achievements. Before they view any of the series, ask your students to list the personality traits they think are most important for a successful innovator. Have the class create a chart with these traits listed across the top.

    After watching some or all of the series, assign students relevant Primary Sources available on this site (including Lewis Tappan's "Is It Right to Be Rich?," Thomas Watson's "Assets and Liabilities for Success," Samuel Colt's "I Won't Be Second," John Fitch's "Indian Captive," or Ted Turner's "Respect for Everybody"). Then divide the class into five groups. Have each group select three innovators profiled in the Who Made America? section of this Web site, one from each of the following time periods: a) 1787-1865; b)1866-1945; c)1946-2004. Make sure that no more than one of the innovators selected is profiled in the film.

    Now have each group research their innovators' actual personalities, noting both positive and negative characteristics, and then put a check on the chart by the traits that each innovator actually seems to possess. Do the results of this experiment surprise you? Are there changes in innovators' personalities in different time periods, or do they remain relatively consistent? Are there certain traits that many innovators seem to share? Conversely, did you find that several entrepreneurs possessed characteristics not included on the chart? Have the class modify their chart to reflect what now seem to be the most important personality traits of successful innovators.

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page created on 6.30.2004
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