Students leading change; two weeks to a nationwide movement

 by Ben Matthews, University Innovation Fellow at the University of Virginia 

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On March 23, 2015, I attended the 5th White House Science Fair representing University Innovation Fellows through #uifresh and discussing innovation in education with leaders from across the country. Just two weeks earlier, I was addressed with a startling statistic that sparked #uifresh. This is a story of students acting rapidly and collaboratively to solve problems on a massive scale that ignited nationwide change.

It was March 4, 2015, when I discovered this shocking statistic: “About 60 percent of students who arrive at college intending to major in STEM subjects switch to other subjects, often in their first year.” (President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology: Engage to Excel Report)

This is a huge problem given the growing shortage of the STEM workforce.

I reflected on my own education as an Engineer at the University of Virginia. Students in the program are equipped with a unique problem solving toolkit in order to solve our world’s problems. With large introductory courses, and a mission to cross general requirements off a checklist, I was not inspired by my education.

With this reflection motivating me, the University Innovation Fellows and I passionately brainstormed the root of the problem and ways to address it. Within two hours, we developed #uifresh: an initiative to expose and engage incoming first years in design thinking, innovation, and entrepreneurship at universities across the nation.

I reached out to the President of the University of Virginia, Dean of Engineering, faculty and students to collectively address STEM attrition on grounds. In 24 hours, I had cross-university support and a signed letter stating this support addressed to President Obama.

Over the next two weeks, I worked with students from across the country to bring a total of ten campuses into the initiative, having an impact on thousands of incoming first years that upcoming fall.

Ben&BillByeAnd here I found myself, just two weeks after discovering the shocking statistic above, at the White House taking a selfie with Bill Nye the Science Guy and discussing partnerships for experiential learning in the classroom.

Over the past year, 10 more universities have joined the #uifresh initiative, developing unique solutions to reduce STEM attrition on their campuses, with more signing on this week in honor of our one year anniversary and the 6th White House Science Fair.

At the University of Virginia, we have inspired first years through an entrepreneurship kick-off, tours of maker-spaces, and innovation luncheons. These events, targeted directly at first years, have increased student engagement in applying their education to solve our world’s problems.

-Ben Matthews

Ben MatthewsBenMatthews_headshot

University Innovation Fellow

Systems Engineering Major

University of Virginia

Join #uifresh


Check out Ben’s feature on UVa’s website for representing at the White House Science Fair.

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