Niles: Can Disney help inspire the next generation of tech?

Niles: Can Disney help inspire the next generation of tech?

Earlier this month, I was invited to visit Disney’s real-life Avengers Campus — the Walt Disney Imagineering headquarters in Glendale.

The occasion was the announcement of the 2024 class of the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Disney was hosting because one of its own, Lanny Smoot, was included in the class — the first person from the company inducted since Walt Disney himself.

After the announcement, several honorees spoke to invited reporters. As they talked about the challenge of educating the next generation of great inventors, I could not help but think about Disneyland’s Avengers Campus.

“I think our educational system is upside down,” Asad Madni said. The UCLA professor was another 2024 inductee, for his work on micro-electromechanical system gyroscopes. “We teach them physics and teach them maths. We teach them chemistry. We throw equations at them. We scare the living hell out of them. It’s just not inspiring.

“Bring the kids in and first get them excited. Don’t talk about those equations or nonsense first. Get them inspired.”

Inspiration is what creators like the ones who work on Disney’s theme parks do best. The National Inventors Hall of Fame reached more than 200,000 children through its educational programs last year, but Disney’s theme parks welcome millions.

In movies and theme parks, we celebrate people who break the rules to save the day. But in real life — as Lonnie Johnson, a former JPL aerospace engineer and 2022 honoree who invented the Super Soaker water gun, said — we punish those kids more often than we celebrate them.

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“The kids who think independently, (who) figure out things early and test limits, those are some of the out-of-the-box thinkers that we need to nurture and not suppress. Having the fortitude to tolerate independent thinkers is something that as we as adults can do a better job of.”

So many Marvel stories begin at the intersection of scorn for unearned authority and love for ingenuity and perseverance. Through characters such as Tony Stark, Peter Parker (and Miles Morales) and Bruce Banner, Marvel celebrates the creative genius of people whom others often dismiss as threats rather than role models.

From classrooms to Hollywood to Wall Street, America too often is looking for people and products that return immediate value, dismissing whatever or whoever requires long-term investment. Those inventors at Imagineering are right. We are eating the seed corn that was supposed to grow a new generation of creative genius.

Right now, Avengers Campus offers a shoot-‘em-up ride and some character shows. But imagine if the land were less a tribute to the iconography of Marvel and more a manifestation of the brand’s core spirit.

It’s not Disney’s job to inspire kids to fall in love with science and engineering, but the company does enjoy that opportunity. Maybe if Disney could find a way to host something like the National Inventors Hall of Fame’s educational programs inside Avengers Campus, that could happen.