Inventing a New Public Education System Requires New Energy for R&D

Note from Education Reimagined   11 October 2023
By Kelly Young


The scientific community has codified the stages of R&D as research, development, demonstration, and scale… With advanced nuclear power, the field’s journey through these stages serves as a model for Education Reimagined.

Kelly Young
Founder and President, Education Reimagined

As we experience the ways in which our world is monumentally shifting—and the ways in which those shifts are accelerating—it’s becoming ever-clearer that we need to implement groundbreaking new ideas, systems, and technologies to reshape the ways our young people learn and develop. 

Inventing a new public education system requires investment in research and development. Full stop. 

The opportunity for R&D to propel education forward hits close to home—especially in my home. At the dinner table, and over breakfast, my husband, Jeff Navin, inspires me as he shares the everyday progress of his work to advance nuclear power as a sustainable clean energy source. This effort has required deliberate R&D processes and more than $1 billion in investment. Especially over the last few years, I have consistently asked myself how can we, as a society, support R&D in K–12 education with the same degree of intention, investment, and cross-sector collaboration.

The scientific community has codified the stages of R&D as research, development, demonstration, and scale. Federal and private funding empower work streams at each stage of the process. With advanced nuclear power, the field’s journey through these stages serves as a model for Education Reimagined and our community, as we accelerate R&D for the development and demonstrations of community-based, learner-centered ecosystems.

In 2006, Bill Gates, who founded the leading advanced nuclear company, TerraPower, with other visionaries, doubled down on the need for the private sector to partner with the government to drive innovation in energy. The core challenge: How to create a clean energy solution that’s not reliant on the weather, as wind and solar are. Nuclear energy became the focus. 

Yet, the design of nuclear reactors and power plants had not significantly evolved since the 1950s. 

Today, TerraPower has devised, developed, and demonstrated prototypes of nuclear energy solutions that are primed for scale in the United States, and other areas of the world. 

First came the big idea: the opportunity to use sodium—molten salt—in key components of reactors both as fuel and as a coolant. This innovation enables significantly more efficiency in the generation of electricity, without emissions. Research to develop and test this idea occurred over several years in deep collaboration with a host of partners—labs, universities, and other energy innovation companies.

The next big phase has been the demonstration of this idea, in a variety of contexts and industry applications. Through its partnerships—and with the financial support and involvement of the U.S. Department of Energy—the company has ignited and joined efforts to build a versatile test reactor in the United States. Large-scale projects and investments are at various stages of implementation—including the expansion of TerraPower labs in Everett, Washington, the creation of a reactor to replace a coal plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, a fast-spectrum salt reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory,  and a fuel facility in Wilmington, North Carolina.

Now the first large reactor is being built to scale. The ultimate vision is harnessing this mammoth R&D investment to enable the replication of these systems and technology—sparking widespread availability of clean, sustainable nuclear energy as a solution to our climate crisis. The field of nuclear energy is being re-established, thanks to dedicated vision, effort, and public and private funding. Our society’s core need for energy is being balanced with the public good of reducing our carbon footprint, and generating jobs and careers in the process.

How can we enable this same quantum leap in invention for K-12 education? 

Addressing the near-universal, post-COVID view that K–12 education must evolve, innovation investments to date mostly have been directed toward improvements within the current design of education. Yet the design of the conventional system is fundamentally misaligned with the needs and values of most learners, families, communities, and society. To find fulfillment and purpose, and to meaningfully contribute their gifts to society, our young people need to develop agency, need learning that’s relevant and contextualized for the real world, and need to experience that learning within supportive communities. A host of recent research confirms that parents seek learning that helps their children develop practical skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving to prepare them for life and careers. As such, we have an urgent opportunity to realign public education system designs with those values and to serve our society’s rapidly evolving needs. 

Similar to the innovations and promise that sodium has quite literally fueled in the field of nuclear energy, the big idea of community-based, learner-centered ecosystems holds promise to enrich and enable valuable change in education at the systems level.

This vision for community-based, learner-centered ecosystems has been architected over 10 years in deep partnership with practitioners of learner-centered education, learning scientists, futurists, and youth development leaders. We now need to set our sights on turning that vision into demonstrations of this system solution, in order to spark scalable shifts. 

But just as TerraPower and other advanced nuclear efforts have raised hundreds of millions of dollars—with government funding as a big piece of that—our field needs the investment to develop prototypes, understand the infrastructure needs, and create the conditions necessary for implementation.

In deep collaboration with our partners in the learner-centered community, Education Reimagined is committed to accelerating this R&D work, enacting our shared vision, and bringing learner-centered ecosystems to life. 

New resources and news on The Big Idea!


We recently announced a new R&D acceleration initiative to connect and support local communities ready to bring public, equitable, learner-centered ecosystems to life.