Legends of Learning was in sunny Palm Springs last month for the California Science Teachers Association (CSTA) annual conference. California has always been known as a progressive state, whether its in the area of environmental protection or tech innovation, so it was no surprise that they selected Chip Yates as their keynote speaker.
Chip Yates, recently dubbed the “rockstar of science”, has been leading the field in risk taking endeavors for the last 10 years. Chip started by telling us about how he became interested in risk taking an innovation as a kid. At the age of 13, he said, he was assembling and disassembling motorcycle parts, eventually building his own bike to ride.
As he talked about his experiences growing up in Pittsburgh, he continually asked the question in the picture: “What Is Your Dream?” He encouraged educators ask students this question as much as possible, citing his own disinterest in school as a young kid. He said as a young kid he was always curious about experimenting but he never felt like adults cared to ask him what he wanted to be. The traditional model of school wasn’t for him.
Eventually, he said, his family sent him to military school, where he was really able to turn his life around. Although he was able to complete high school and enter college, he opted to drop out at one point because of the offer of an engineering apprenticeship. Chip described this as another turning point. Once he learned how to actually do things like design and weld, he could see his dream a little more clearly in front of him. As he described it, he was getting “direct mentorship” versus just being “shown possibility” the way we traditionally do with school assemblies.
Chip then took us through a series of jobs he landed with his machinist and engineering skills, from working for a toy company to designing valves for Jeep Cherokees. He felt like his career was taking off and he had a series of accomplishments, including going for his MBA at USC and working part time for Boeing.
But by 36, he said, he was sitting in a cubicle unhappy with his career and life trajectory. So what did he do? He started racing motorcycles as a hobby. At first it didnt go so well. He had many crashes and at one point even broke his pelvis.
But Chip persevered and decided to invite three friends to come over and make an electric bike he could use to win motorcycle races. “The first time I came in last on the world super championship grid I felt like I had won,” he said. That’s probably because Chip had to negotiate with the American Motorcyle Association (AMA) just to let him race his electric bike alongside its gas powered competitors. “I went from a joke to an innovative method overnight when I won the race” he said.
Eventually, Chip went on not only to win the AMA motorcycle championships, but to break eight world records for the electric motorcycle over the next few years. Before his record breaking run up pikes peak, Monster Energy Drink even told him he wasn’t exciting enough to sponsor. Whoops. “Life is about responding to setbacks” he says.
Chip didn’t stop with motorcycles, however. After setting land speed records for the electric bike, he was asked to speak about the future of electric aviation. He thought that was crazy since he had never designed an electric airplane. His response was not to decline the invitation but to build a model electric plane within 2 months. His team had virtually nothing to work with, including a planter from Michaels in place of an engine. “It’s what broke engineers have to do,” he said.
Of course you can imagine where the story goes from here. Chip has built multiple electric airplanes that have set a total of 10 world records to date. As Chip artfully recounts, the innovations are not about having lots of money either. At one point, he was able to secure a contract with the Navy for an electric airplane whose prototype consisted of two trashcans from target secured together as the fuselage.
To hear Chip tell it, the issue we have in our schools is about risk taking, passion and dreams. If we want our children to truly innovate, we have to reward risk taking. He even offered up the controversial idea that students be given higher grades for something they did wrong that took more creative effort than something done right that was safe.
Chip may be on the edge of his seat, literally and figuratively, flying 200+ miles an hour through space to prove a point, but he demonstrated quite convincingly at CSTA that as educators, we should foster a young person’s sense of daring to be great if we want our collective future to be bright.