The Voice of the Innovator: Inspiring Story of Rebecca Schatz

Rebecca Schatz, Entrepreneur and Founder of ‘The Works’

Go for it!

Rebecca Schatz is the founder of The Works and served as President from 1987 to 2011. The Works is a hands-on museum that makes technology, science and engineering interesting, understandable and fun for young people. Rebecca has created something out of nothing. She had a vision and a passion and combined those to change the way children experience engineering. The Works is all about inspiring the next generation of innovators, engineers and creative problem solvers. Today, Rebecca is involved with the National Science Foundation and other innovative efforts around the country.

Takeaways from your childhood and life?

My Mother said that one of my key phrases was, “I can do it by myself.” My parents did encourage me to do my own thing. I don’t know if I was born quirky or became a quirky person because I didn’t have it rubbed out of me. I always ate apple butter sandwiches and my parents just made sure there was other nourishing food around. Another thing that was influential on me was ‘Tikkun Olam’ –part of Jewish philosophy which says, “This is why we are put on this earth—to make things better.” I also remember a specific line from a play….”God says take whatever you want and pay for it”. It means to me…whatever you do is alright, but don’t expect it to come easy. This is an important message for innovators—almost nothing comes easy.

Rebecca in her own words…

Being innovative isn’t the goal. It is more about getting some thing done and doing some thing that is worth doing. Before I started The Works, I had in my mind that I wanted to push on engineering education and enhance America’s capacity for innovation. I felt strongly that engineering education can and must start with young children — and that exploring engineering can transform how we educate our children in significant and wonderful ways. But, I wasn’t a politician and I wasn’t wired to be an educator in the traditional way. I had to pick something I was passionate about and apply my skills. My thought was to start a place that could be a model of what I believed, and even if it didn’t explode it still would be an example of how I thought the world could be. There was a landmark study — the Project 2061 Technology Panel chaired by Jim Johnson from 3M — that articulated a comprehensive and deeply human vision of what engineering and technology education should look like, but no-one was doing it. So, I decided I would catalyze this.
I loved tinkering and do-it-yourself stuff when I was growing up. I began to major in engineering but I was not tough enough to survive being the only woman in the large entry-level lecture classes. There wasn’t much respect for engineering in the larger world either. Luckily, when I was in college the computer revolution took off. I wound up in that industry and moved up really fast—one of the few women in the field at the time. But, I was looking for what was next and I wandered into the fellowship office and ended up with a fellowship in Japan. I studied the underpinnings of technological innovation during the time when Japan was becoming a very serious competitor. America was overly confident — arrogant really. The Japanese were sending many people to study us, we weren’t sending anyone there.
When I returned, I was ready to do some thing else and I traveled around to see what was going on with engineering around the country. There wasn’t anything at the time that allowed you to touch and really play with machines. Frank Oppenheimer had created The Exploratorium, a museum of physics and human perception. And, Cynthia Yao at the Ann Arbor Hands-on Museum had created a truly engaging, participatory place for children and learning. What they were doing was the closest thing to what I was thinking about. They had a big impact on me.
When I founded The Works I wanted to make an environment where every child would feel truly welcome and that each child could make things, learn things, build things, understand things, even just mess around. At the time, education was very book and worksheet oriented. It was all about learning facts and not oriented toward hands-on experience. As a child my best and truest moments were when I was making or doing something. Children are so full of possibility and think about it we make them sit still and hold a pencil in a certain way for long periods of time. Children need places that are truly welcoming of their individual capacity to invent and create a place that gives them an opportunity to build things and transform their world.
I have a quiet deep belief of why I did what I did and over the years reality mostly reinforced my beliefs. The Works became what I wanted it to become. Originally it was a passion pitch. People came because they thought it was cool; parents, cub-scout leaders, or teachers. It wasn’t because it fulfilled a standard. We were a niche market initially. We weren’t very well publicized, we were small and our funding was mostly from men who had started technology companies. They were engineers and understood the power and the joy of engineering; they got a glint in their eye and said something like, “yea, we need this because kids don’t build boats any more….”
Today the whole context is different. Engineering is now required in the Minnesota State academic standards at every grade level, beginning in kindergarten. National standards for elementary engineering are underway. Our audience has grown 5 fold in the past few years; our strategy can now envision nation-wide impact. Innovation never stands still; there are always new challenges and new opportunities to tackle. For instance, The Works is now a pioneer in training and inspiring elementary teachers to have children DO engineering in the classroom. We are funded by foundations and companies as well as individuals, and we’re sustainable. Our mission is more important than ever and our impact grows and grows.

Rebecca’s advice for being more innovative and stretching your innovative capacity….
“Do your homework, don’t talk crap and in the fullness of time victory will be yours…” Janet Brown—Environmental Defense Fund…..
Find other people that want it to happen and help you. If it is just you, you’ll wear your self out. What you do has to resonate with the ‘bigger world,” if it is to have an impact.
Remember the song: Know when to hold ‘em’ and know when to fold ‘em.’ You shouldn’t stop after the first attempt but you need to set some kind of limit past which you’ll move on or try something different. We have had many difficult times in the history of The Works but only once did I almost fold it and it was pretty early on—but, I got a very large donation on that day.
Take care of yourself. It can be a long haul. I don’t think I have taken care of myself like I should have. You have to have a lot of skin in the game to do what matters, but maybe I should have kept a bit more skin to myself. And one more….
Go for it! There’s nothing like the pure joy of seeing something you made happen work. Innovators really do change the world.


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