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Cal Poly Freshman and Dublin High School Alum Nicholas Sinai Selected as Prestigious University Innovation Fellow

University Innovation Fellow, Nicholas Sinai, is recognized by his high school (Dublin High School) for his entrepreneurial pursuits at Cal Poly University San Luis Obispo during his freshman year. His past teachers and family provide an amazing insight into the type of person Nicholas is, and we couldn’t agree more. Keep up the great work Nicholas!

Innovation and Determination

University Innovation Fellow Atin Mittra led a service learning trip to the Dominican Republic’s Barrio Blanco and learned a lesson about determination in the process.

by Atin Mittra
University Innovation Fellow, University of Maryland College Park

Atin Mittra (left) with members of his design team during their spring trip to Barrio Blanco in the Dominican Republic.

As I embarked to lead an Alternative Spring Break trip to the Dominican Republic, I had no idea the next week would be a life changing experience.

The community we worked in was called Barrio Blanco, named after the man who started the community, Blanco. Blanco is around sixty years old, but his passion for maintaining the barrio makes him move like he’s twenty-five. A small neighborhood hidden away in the bustling tourist attraction of Cabarete, Barrio Blanco represents the determination of community organizers to withstand gentrification. The wealth and abundance that kissed the beachside resorts didn’t make it to the barrio. In fact, half a mile from the five star restaurants, people were walking on unpaved streets covered in trash.

The three service projects our group focused on were teaching children at the DREAM school, painting a mural on the entrance of the neighborhood, and making mobile garbage cans. The mobile trash can project was primed for the design thinking process.

The Problem: The entrance to the community was a quarter mile long with two cinderblock walls on either side. The opening was only wide enough for one large truck. The side streets were far too narrow for the truck to make its way around so the residents could either carry their garbage to the truck or throw it out in front of their house. By and large people chose the latter. As a result, trash lay undisturbed, free to enjoy the Dominican sun. Unfortunately, trash leaked into the nearby lagoon behind the houses, contaminating the water and causing health concerns for the residents. Upon learning about design thinking from the Academy for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UMD, my co-trip leader and I quickly introduced the methodology into our facilitation identifying potential benefits of using it in a social context. I had hoped to give my twelve participants tools such as design thinking that would allow them to more easily tackle large-scale problems after the trip, a process known as activation.

The Task: Design and build eight mobile trash cans which can be pulled on unpaved, uneven streets and be light enough for children to pull.

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Young-Ju and Atin measuring wheel placements

The Process: First, we observed. I jotted some preliminary ideas for the frame and wheel placement after our work was finished each day. I pulled two participants who displayed interest in the design process to help, Taylor and Young-Ju. It was imperative for both of them to share their opinion during the prototype and test phase. At first, both were hesitant to give their input. After relentlessly insisting they share their ideas, Young-Ju exclaimed, “I don’t know, I’m not an engineer like you, you know what you’re doing.” I was both shocked and relieved. Shocked because it felt like I was finally breaking through timid Young-Ju’s shell and relieved because this was something that I could tell was on both of their minds. “What does engineering have anything to do with this, we just need to solve a problem,” I explained turning the focus on the task at hand.

From that point on, they both opened up throughout the design process.

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Team members attach a frame to a trash can

After numerous trips to the hardware store and shipping parts in fromPuerto Rico, we were finally ready to build all eight trash cans on our last day of service. It started at noon. To start building we created a six-person team. The inconsistent electricity made it difficult to make progress and it seemed like everything was standing between us and our goal. Through sheer determination we pushed forward. As people in the community saw us working, they began coming out of their houses to offer help. A group of men who ran a hardware business nearby stopped working in order to make sure we were adequately equipped to finish the project. Timid Young-Ju who had once held her tongue when asked her opinion now had no problem barking orders at other participants to ensure they were building the frames correctly. Wiping sweat away from my sleep deprived eyes, for a minute I observed at what was happening around me. There were at least a dozen people helping in some capacity now in an assembly line type fashion. My original design team acted as quality assurance. We even brought in someone else from the community to weld handles onto the sides of the can.

The schedule said to end work at 4:30 and head to a nice dinner on the beach, but we couldn’t leave until the job was finished. We finished the last can at 7:00pm as the sun forfeited its position above. Even though we were all battling heat exhaustion, sickness, and sleep deprivation, all ailments were buried the moment we finished. Accomplishment and satisfaction coagulated with the cool Dominican air. It felt like we just won the Super Bowl, everyone was in visible ecstasy. The community leaders invited us back the next day to give a proper thank you/goodbye.

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Seven of the completed trash cans

The next evening we entered the barrio making the long walk to the school one last time. As soon as we began walking down the entrance, we heard the pitter patter of running children and in the distance tiny voices yelling “they’re here! they’re here!” in Spanish followed quickly by the muffled thuds of them running into and embracing us with their small arms. They guided us to the school where leaders of the community and kids alike prepared speeches for us. They praised us for the work we did but most of all for caring about the barrio. Everywhere I turned all I heard was “nunca te olvidare” (I will never forget you). I was blown away that people we had no idea existed just five days prior were now telling us we changed their lives. I couldn’t describe the way it felt when I heard the work I did impacted someone’s life. It was the greatest high I’ve ever felt. I ducked out of the party early to look at the trash cans one last time before we left.

As I headed back to our work site, I saw Blanco sitting there alone as if he knew I was coming. I looked up from Blanco’s silhouette to see all the garbage cans were gone. “Where are the garbage cans, Blanco?” I asked. In a calm voice he told me if I wanted to see them again, I’d have to walk around the whole community because they had already been put to use. I was speechless. Not even twenty-four hours after we finished the project, they were already serving their purpose. It was incredible to think through engineering and design thinking we were able to build something that would help this group of people we grew to love.

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The final assembly team poses after finishing all eight trash cans

At times engineering can be nebulous and my mind would lay burdened by theory and formulas in class, but I wouldn’t have been able to help the residents of Barrio Blanco if not for those classes. It was amazing to be able to apply things from class to the real world and make a difference. It was also rewarding to be able to demystify engineering and design to non-STEM majorswho found instant utility from its principles. I will never forget how happy the residents of Barrio Blanco were. Our closeness to the community greatly aided the human centered piece of our design process. Not only did we want what we built to be used, but we cared so deeply about our friends in the barrio, that nothing but the best was acceptable. If you’re passionate enough about a project and you remain resolutely determined on achieving the goal, nothing can stop you.

Atin Mittra Atin Mittra is a student at the University of Maryland, College Park majoring in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Technology Entrepreneurship, graduating in 2014. he is passionate about social entrepreneurship and understanding social trends. Atin is also the Founder and Executive Director of MADE Microfinance, a non-profit that aims to build financial literacy and assets for people who are rejected by the traditional banking industry.

Manifesto: We Believe Students Can Change The World

Fellows are boldly proclaiming that all peers across campus should engage in innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking and creativity as a means to make a difference in the world and enhance every individual’s potential leadership abilities. They are declaring this to be a movement. Inspired by a deeper calling to advance their campus innovation ecosystem and strengthen the future economic prospects for their peers on campus, Fellows have put forth this Manifesto as rallying cry for others, across organizations and academic disciplines, to join them in this cause.

Essential Reads for Engineers and their Peers

By Elliot Roth

This is a list compiled by the University Innovation Fellows of life-changing books. Each is a wonderful exposition into different facets of innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ve been working my way through this list, and have learned amazing lessons that have changed my perception on innovation, creativity, leadership and my journey as a student entrepreneur.

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IMG_9177By Elliot Roth is a Junior in Biomedical Engineering at Virginia Commonwealth University. His interests are myriad and include slam poetry, music, international jewel thievery, being an EMT, and writing incredible articles as a Student Ambassador. You can reach him at rothet@vcu.edu and follow him on twitter @rothet

The Innovator Education Paradox

By Sean Newman Maroni

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We all know that the education system is imperfect.

In order to remain competitive in the global economy, American schools must better prepare our youth for the business challenges they will face. Specifically, schools must teach students to be problem solvers who can use their natural creativity and their education to produce new innovations.

To come up with a revolutionary new idea, you need the gift of creativity, and a deep understanding of the fundamental principals of the world we live in. While our school system is sometimes successful in teaching students these principals, it’s done by sacrificing creativity.

To create an obedient workforce for the industrial revolution era factories, our schools promoted conformity at every opportunity. To this day, we still sit our kids in orderly rows, schedule their days with a bell system, force them to memorize facts, and punish wrong answers.

By the time we are 21, this system has squished the natural creativity right out of us.

202772_10151180943575449_148356248_o-1024x617This was alarmingly obvious to me in college when as part of an entrepreneurship group I build a giant whiteboard designed to encourage passersby to scribble a creative idea.

I found that very often getting a peer to write a genuine idea in this public way was like pulling teeth. They would default to saying things like “I’m not creative…” and would sign their name and walk away.

Everyone is creative, but we’ve been conditioned to think otherwise.

It is this education at the expense of creativity that is the problem. Potentially innovative thought requires both. No creativity, and one cannot connect existing ideas in a novel way. No education, and the novel connections will be too trivial to be useful.

The Innovation Education Paradox, Sean Maroni

We must break out of this trap. We need to ditch the bells, the desks, the dense textbooks with answers in the back, and we need to stop medicating the curiosity from our kids. Currently innovation occurs in spite of our system, let’s make it happen because of the system.

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Sean Newman Maroni is a senior in mechanical engineering at North Carolina State University. He is a Student Ambassador and the co-founder of BetaVersity, a startup specializing in building and supporting innovation ecosystems (see our blog post on it here). Sean can be reached at Sean@BetaVersity.com, and can be found writing about the amplification of human potential at RefuseToPeak.com (reprinted by permission).

Welcome to the brand new home of the University Innovation Fellows Program!

new*** NOW ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS FOR FALL TRAINING: We are searching for 27 University Innovation Fellows to join current team of 33. Deadline for Fall Training is September 16th. APPLY NOW. ***

Welcome to the brand new home of the University Innovation Fellows Program! So much has changed, where to we begin? Let’s start from the top:

  • First, the name University Innovation Fellows (UI Fellow) refers to the students who we train and groom to lead the movement on their campuses. This retires the name that gave us our start back in 2010, the Student Ambassadors Program… no offense to all you other Student Ambassadors out there, there are just way too many of you representing anything from software to consumer products. We wanted a name that conveyed the leadership qualities our students embody and conveys the prestige that comes with it. The new name also says a little bit more about what they do, which is to work to enhance the innovation ecosystem on campus. Learn more.
  • We are excited to announce that our application for Fall Training is now live! We are seeking 27 bright new students to join our team of 33 to bring us to 60 University Innovation Fellows for the 2013-2014 academic year. Learn more about the advantages of becoming a UI Fellow and of having one on your campus here.
  • Next, the new website address dreamdesigndeliver.org … University Innovation Fellows are inspiring students to ‘Dream. Design. Deliver.’ new solutions to the world around them. This is a call for engineers and their interdisciplinary peers to think creatively, invent and adopt an entrepreneurial mindset. So, if your campus is selected to have a University Innovation Fellow, you’ll likely see cool-looking students sporting fabulous T-shirts that urge students on campus to ‘Dream. Design. Deliver.’ along with them in a movement that will sweep their campus and the nation.
  • Finally, you’ll notice a lot of great new content written by University Innovation Fellows. These from-the-trenches perspectives on catalyzing student innovation on campus, tools and resources that hone the entrepreneurial mindset and examples of institutional change. This is the place you’ll learn how the actions of two students and their team helped land $20 million to fund a design institute. You’ll hear one University Innovation Fellow strategy of creating something every day to hone his creativity skills. And occasionally other contributors, from staff to students at large, will share lists of seed funding sources or free online courses that strengthen your innovation skills. You’ll want to make sure you follow this blog by email so you don’t miss anything. Just follow the link on our home page and make it so.

We’re really excited about some important enhancements to the University Innovation Fellows program and the plans in place for the year ahead! You’ll see a lot more coming from us in the next few months. We want this movement to bring together campus changemakers. Innovation and the entrepreneurial mindset are the way forward for us personally and as a nation and it will take ALL OF US pulling in the same direction to make it happen. Join us, either as a University Innovation Fellow or join us as a collaborator. We would love make students aware of the opportunities, resources and tools you offer to help strengthen the campus ecosystem. Join us!

You can contact me at humera at nciia dot org or post your comments below!

~ Humera Fasihuddin, @ihumera

Senior Program Officer, University Innovation Fellows.

*** NOW ACCEPTING APPLICATIONS FOR FALL TRAINING: We are searching for 27 University Innovation Fellows to join current team of 33. Deadline for Fall Training is September 16th. APPLY NOW. ***

Redefining the University & Entrepreneur’s Definition of Innovation.

When you google innovation, the definition pops up as “the introduction of something new” or “a new idea, method, or device.” Sure. But I see the NCIIA as able to challenge students to truly innovate. To take their freedom at academia and imagine the non-existing, mess around and see what happens, or apply two polar opposites in the same thought.

Today, we’re seeing lots of new products and ideas- but many are combinations of preexisting ideas with a twist or an existing application tried in a new environment.

As an Ambassador, my NCIIA Invention to Venture event will have an opening night called NYU Ambition. I’m out to reawaken and engage dreamers- students with ideas that society might make them feel are unrealistic or too hard to accomplish.

My goal this year is to ignite discussion and better understanding of the definition of innovation and how our University is faring from all angles…while simultaneously providing students the resources to take action and get rolling.

Vivek Wadhma recently tweeted something I agree with…

So how about we start considering innovation as the unknown- and allow ourselves to reach for it? I will be contemplating and working to initiate more ways for schools, governments, and businesses to provide more fertile grounds for innovation.

And if you’re still worried about Silicon Valley having it all, this chunk from Fred Wilson’s blog should ease your worries and inspire you:

“The entire world is now a rival to Silicon Valley. No country, state, region, nor city has a lock on innovation in technology anymore. The Internet has made this so and there’s no going back. We will see Apples and Facebooks get build in China, India, Brazil, Eastern Europe, Western Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and plenty of other places.”

But please, spread the word that technology is not limited to internet startups,  that Universities are the place to experiment and start research or a company because of the freedom, support and resources available, and lastly- that you don’t need to be in or near a “hub-” you can start your own overnight!

Samantha Smith