SCOTTSDALE, Arizona—When Google Chairman Eric Schmidt addressed attendees here at the Google Zeitgeist gathering Monday, he literally set the stage for the next two days.

"We need to set out an agenda for innovation for our country as a whole," he told the crowd at the invitation-only conference where curious minds meet—from scientists to CEOs (some of whom are both). He went on to add that we need "to change the way education is being done. We need to invest in a new generation of [people who do] long-term thinking." He exhorted: "Take the long view." The conference speakers would return to those notions—moving toward a better future by investing in youngsters and education today—many times.

Newark Mayor Cory Booker spoke movingly about his own support and about giving back to the community. "If everybody just mentored a kid," he noted, it would do a lot to support their future success. Sandra Day O'Connor, the former Supreme Court justice, added, "It's how we teach and what we teach" that make the difference; O'Connor recently helped develop an online educational games project, called iCivics, for fifth to ninth graders to learn about government.

Robert Reich of the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out a practical economic benefit: today's jobs demand a solid education. The former Labor Secretary under President Bill Clinton cited an unemployment rate for college grads of 5 percent; for high-school grads, 15 percent; and for those with no degree, 30 or 40 percent. Teachers are key to fostering students: Reich said we need both metrics for teacher performance plus better pay. "If we want talented women or men [to teach], we need to pay them," he added.

Dave Eggers, founder of 826 Valencia, spoke of fostering literary love in his afterschool program, and about a Kickstarter-like way to fund educational projects, called Scholar Match.

Several talks noted special challenges and opportunities in Africa. Neil Turok, head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics spoke of how deeply affected he was by a stint teaching in Africa, where belief in magic was common. In contrast, physics, he said, is "magic that works." He went on to found the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in South Africa. "If you don't have maths and you don't have science, you will not enter the modern age. It's as simple as that," he said. The school focuses on the students' potential and on interacting with them to get past a traditional university model that is "running out of steam"; more than 400 have now attended.

Cindy Hensley McCain described the social damage of rape in Congo as "an issue the world has ignored." She said rape affects some 70 percent of all girls and women in Congo at some point in their lives.

Patrick Awuah left a job as a Microsoft engineer to return to his native Ghana to help education there. His inspiration: he had just become a father. "I looked at this child. I realized that Africa matters a lot…for a new generation." He founded Ashesi University in Ghana, which emphasizes positive student character. "We celebrate their potential," he said. "The fortune that we seek [for Africa] will come to pass. I believe that it will depend on inspired and committed leaders. And the manner in which we educate those leaders will make all the difference in the world."

Successful young innovators, such as Google Science Fair grand winner Shree Bose, provided some inspiration for young minds.

During the closing session, Google CEO Larry Page said, "We do have a very serious issue about people being excited to go into technology and computer science." He blamed "kludgy" base code. But generating excitement about pursuing science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) fields is clearly also important for kids.

Everybody can play a role in improving the future, Eggers said—we do not need to wait for an "authority" to do something about the problems we see. When one audience member complained about the Denver school board, for instance, O'Connor wryly suggested: "Then why don't you run for the school board?"

Ultimately, the organizers left the audience with a charge: Want to get invited back next year? Make a difference—and tell us how you did it. I, for one, hope to live up to that challenge. (And here are some recent efforts Scientific American has undertaken for science education.

Image: Google Chairman Eric Schmidt and CEO Larry Page at Google Zeitgeist '11.