Saturday, January 10, 2015

Potential Activities for the university based innovation centers: Innovation Practicum

Continuing from the last post, the activities for such centers beyond these standard ones are for building up the entrepreneurial capacity of students in various ways. These ideas might be able to help the center to differentiate and be more valuable to students than most such other university based centers. The most important idea (in my view) which links the curriculum, learning journey of a student inside the campus and building their capacity to become leaders and entrepreneurs is the following: 

1.      Innovation Practicum: One of the key pillars of my approach and suggested intervention to build students’ capacity to innovate would be the idea of a long term trans-disciplinary self-study projects – we could call them “Innovation Practicum”. The idea here is that during the beginning of their first semester/year, students will be expected to come up with a topic of their choice, which may or may not have any relationship with their intended majors. For the duration of their stay in the university, they are expected to keep learning more and more about that topic as per their own plan – which would be a public document they would prepare but it can be edited any number of times. Only expectation from the students would be to give occasional talks/workshops on the topic and be treated like an expert-in-making on that topic in the campus i.e. if any discussion for academic/non-academic purpose on their topic happens on campus, they are expected to lead or contribute. They are expected to know the most about that topic on campus and to provide advice and expert opinion to professors, students and anyone who may need such inputs for their projects/work. Topics chosen could be anything that can be imagined, either a very narrow one or a very generic one or their existing hobby, and ideally something purposeful e.g. design of cars, philosophy in science fiction, cryptography, some centuries old unsolved mathematical problem, Picasso’s paintings, holy grail or robotics.

Objective is to provide an experience of deep commitment and learning about something by themselves, the way innovators usually emerge. To the extent possible, center should help individual students in achieving whatever learning goals they choose for this program, and getting access to resources or people they might need for doing so. Idea is to Learn -> Do (Present or build prototype) -> Teach others (or Do more). Students will not get grades for these projects (i.e. no academic credits), just the goodwill they generate. Optional evaluations could be conducted by one or more faculty or outside experts engaged with the student. Students can change the topics of their research anytime but that is not encouraged. Evolutionary changes in the topic would be accepted relatively easily but student is expected to convince the program coordinators and mentors for that.

There would be a small fund for everyone to share for pursuing the objectives in these projects. Funding for Innovation Practicum from this pool will be allocated in the following manner:
·       It will be a stage-wise and stingy funding process i.e. become scrappy and identify the least costly way and then pitch for getting funds for the nearest possible milestone – which should typically be around the time of next funding allocation meeting.
·        Allocation will be made by all those who apply for funding through a peer review of ideas in a jury format (expert + peer reviews wherever must). Applicants will present their case and reviewers will keep asking questions which applicants need to answer. Reviewers/applicants can’t get out without a final decision from the allocation meeting – however long it takes (hours or even days). Fighting it out to convince everyone should be the motto as these will be consensus based decisions. Inappropriate behavior will not be allowed in such meetings; however it is perfectly fine if the situation becomes highly political.

The idea behind not having any academic credits for Innovation Practicum is to not corrupt the incentives by encouraging students to students to work based on their internal motivations only, but if a university things otherwise then they could have credits assigned too. In such cases, I would recommend caution and careful considerations on how to design such a program for the students that doesn’t lead to misalignment of overall learning objectives. 

In the next post, I will list the remaining ideas for such ideas which I could think of. Obviously it won’t be an exhaustive list but definitely a good set of ideas to select and add more to.

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