Blind date with an 87-year-old innovator

OK, so "blind date" might be the wrong terminology here. But I think you'll see what I'm getting at.

About a month ago, I got an invitation to a lunch meeting. So, today, I showed up where I was supposed to be and met my lunch companion, an 87-year-old innovator and tinkerer. We shook hands and found our table and proceeded to have what felt, at least to me, like a fairly awkward conversation for a few minutes.

And then, after a bit of back and forth, we stumbled upon the fact that both of us thought the other one had requested this meeting. Through a bit of dialogue, we realized that this was a setup, organized by a third party, who knew both of us and thought we should get to know each other.

Once we got that out of the way, we proceed to have a fascinating conversation that covered everything from Newberg's past, to the need to challenge students with interesting problems, to the future of Newberg.

He shared one of his favorite problems with me — the oil burning candle on our table. The problem: it gets dirty. Specifically, the clear square that holds the oil that the wick sits in gets dirty. To be able to clean it, you have to get all the oil out of it. He offered a number of possibilities for removing the oil for cleaning from vacuums to air compressors to even turning the apparatus upside down over a receptacle — and then explained all the problems with those solutions.

He talked about how when he runs into a problem like that, it grabs his total focus until he figures out a simple, elegant solution. This problem got his total focus until he solved it. And the solution he found fits perfectly with his approach to innovation: keep it simple. The solution was a turkey baster and a straw. Using those two simple, common objects, you can drain the oil and clean the container without setting anything on fire or needing access to any advanced equipment.

The moral of this story: give kids real problems and let them innovate to find simple, elegant solutions.