Some years ago, I witnessed a transformative talk by education researcher David Perkins, in which he described the mind of the inventor. In his presentation titled “Mapping the Inventive Mind,” Perkins outlined his discovery that inventors possessed a distinct ability to question existing knowledge, borrow ideas across disciplines and exercise a mental agility to step back from approaches that don’t appear to work in order to find new solutions. He called this creative thought process“transgressive cognition,” a central element of the inventor’s mind, as illustrated below.

Transgressive cognition is what enabled the Wright Brothers to leverage their knowledge of bicycle mechanics to take flight or, more recently, how aerospace professor Wes Harris applied the principles of fluid dynamics to understand sickle cell anemia. In short, this ability to cross intellectual boundaries to devise fundamentally fresh and more powerful ways of doing things is the source of “newness,” and it’s also the nucleus of innovation.

Innovation is a central component of NSBE’s 2015 Annual Convention theme: Innovation & Excellence: Reimagining Your Future.

By definition, innovation is something introduced that is new or different. An innovative device, product or method can dramatically improve our quality of life. For instance, the Internet and the products and content it spawned are innovations that radically changed the way we access information. (When was the last time you referenced an encyclopedia volume?) Apple’s iTunes obliterated traditional music store business models, and Amazon changed commerce, and perhaps product delivery, forever.

In choosing this theme, the NSBE 2015 Convention Planning Committee wanted to showcase how our 31,000-member Society can and should give birth to “newness” of ideas, of concepts and of solutions that positively impact the community.

As I explore the theme, I’ve asked myself and others what this innovative thinking could mean for NSBE. How can we apply the lessons of the inventor to our mission? What boundaries can and should we cross?

I believe that the inventor’s mindset — the innovator — should inspire us in two ways: first as individuals and second as an organization.

As individuals, we must become trendsetters of the future by asking new questions, challenging prevailing norms and exemplifying the inventor’s ethic of persistence and perseverance. I’ve written previously about Clifton Conrad and Laura Dunek’s persuasive admonition to colleges and universities to cultivate learners who are “inquiry-driven.” Inquiry-driven learners critically analyze current knowledge and construct new knowledge to frame and solve real-world problems.

And fostering the inventor’s mindset shouldn’t fall solely within the domain of institutions of higher learning. Rather, the message of its importance should be delivered by all NSBE parents and advisors, for SEEK students and pre-collegiate, collegiate and professional members alike. At the end of the day, the world needs us to find solutions to improve lives. That’s what it means to positively impact the community…and the world. You don’t improve lives by just consuming old knowledge. You change the world by creating new knowledge.

As a Society, we have to think boldly about our collective future, shaking off the strictures of the past and legacies that chronically hold us back. With Reimagining Your Future, NSBE is issuing a call to action for the Society to confront some brutal facts: that the percentage of blacks earning engineering degrees in the U.S. has been declining over the past 10 years, for example, or that only 18 percent of African-American 4th graders are proficient in mathematics. To solve these problems, we can’t keep recreating the wheel. We have to call into question whether or not we need wheels at all!

Toward these ends, for NSBE to reimagine its future, we’ll need to draw inspiration from other organizations that have shattered paradigms, many of which are our partners, such as Google and Ford Motor Company. We have to learn from other non-profits outside of our sector, such as Teach For America and the KIPP network of charter schools, which have transformed their industry. We have to be willing to challenge, to dream and to change. And the only way to do this is to be uncomfortable with convention and to embrace our “newness.”

This is the essence of innovation, and why NSBE hopes you’ll join us on this pivotal journey to Reimagining Your Future.

By definition, innovation is something introduced that is new or different. An innovative device, product or method can dramatically improve our quality of life.