Empowering Newcomers

A few Fellows have started to reach beyond the walls of the university to involve external partners and create resources in the surrounding community. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

Yaser Alkayale’s family moved to Canada from Syria in 2006 in search of better educational opportunities. In 2014, Yaser enrolled in Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and became a computer science major.

When Syrian refugees began to arrive in Canada in 2015 and 2016 to escape the Syrian civil war, Yaser couldn’t imagine how it would feel to be forced out of his home and moved to another country involuntarily. 

Halifax alone welcomed more than 1,000 refugees, who didn’t keep that title for long. “In Canada, once refugees arrive, they are called ‘Canadian newcomers’,” Yaser said.

Yaser wanted to help in his own way to make the newcomers feel embraced. After meeting with several administrators to figure out a way to connect the university with the Syrian newcomer community, he met with the dean of Computer Science. The dean shared an idea for a coding camp for the newcomers, and also donated funds to support it.

With this support and idea in hand, Yaser designed the curriculum with help from members of the Syrian Student Society. One of the goals was to help refugees feel more certain about their place in the education system and expose them to what computer science has to offer. 

In August 2016, Yaser and another student collaborator held the first coding camp, hosted by the Syrian Student Society with support from the provost and the Dalhousie Computer Science Faculty. More than 30 Syrian newcomers spent five days learning HTML, CSS and Javascript. The camp was free of charge to participants.

“We took them from barely knowing what a computer is to building websites from scratch, and they were excited to learn more,” Yaser said. “What made this possible was a common goal — Syrian newcomers wanted to learn, the student societies had the power to get it done, and the dean wanted to help out.”

Yaser reported that several of the event participants are now pursuing higher education in a college or university. The camp has continued, and teaches a variety of subjects including robotics and mobile computing. It is open to newcomers from all backgrounds.

Redesigning Engineering

Fellows collaborate with faculty and administrators to redesign and create courses at their schools. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

Kathryn Christopher found herself in a unique position at Grand Valley State University. She had completed a bachelor’s degree in product design and manufacturing engineering and was one year into her master’s degree when she was offered a full-time Visiting Faculty position. She received the offer for the position, which included teaching freshman engineering courses, two weeks before the semester started. 

“It took me less than a minute to say yes,” she said.

As a Fellow, one of the projects had Kathryn focused on was incorporating the design thinking process into freshmen engineering curriculum. She spent several years on this but was unable to change the curriculum, which she had come to realize was a slow and challenging process.

Now a faculty member, Kathryn finally found herself in a position to start making that change. In her first semester, she was scheduled to teach a freshman course that she felt would be a good fit for the design thinking process: a project-based course in which students would create a robot. The project was a good one for their level of knowledge, she said, but the class structure didn’t provide a design process to help them. 

“I wanted to help make them better teammates, students, and engineers by exposing them to a design process used in the real world in a context that was as close to a real-world design project as possible,” she said.

This also happened to be the year the course was up for review. Kathryn began discussing changes that she wanted to make. In contrast to her attempts as a student, Katheryn was surprised that the committee agreed to let her to design a new set of modules and lectures to incorporate a design process into the course. 

“I did so, and the changes and additions were incorporated the next semester,” she said. “By the next year, every single engineering student in GVSU’s engineering program would be exposed to the design thinking process in their first year as an engineering student.”

Since her first class redesign, Kathryn has been able to incorporate other student-generated projects into the curriculum, which she said the students have enjoyed. 

She has found that, through this work, students are being exposed to different parts of engineering sooner, and that they are gaining independent critical thinking and problem solving skills sooner than they previously would have.

“The design thinking process shows engineering students that being an engineer is much more than simply doing CAD, crunching numbers, or sitting alone and coding,” she said. “It is about collaboration, problem solving, learning and growing, and figuring out what to do next. Students don’t often understand that empathy, compassion and relating to humans are such important parts of engineering design, and as they discover this, it helps show them that there are many more aspects to engineering and design than the perceptions people have.”

Opening Minds

Quite a few Fellows have found or created positions to do their innovation work in their university. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

When La Salle Fellow Onesimus Morrison was a sophomore, he attended a seminar on innovation and entrepreneurship taught by Professor Steve Melick, director of the La Salle Center for Entrepreneurship. 

The idea of entrepreneurship attracted Onesimus immediately. He connected with Professor Melick and worked with him on a student-run thrift store program. 

At the end of Onesimus’s sophomore year, Professor Melick asked him if he wanted to work part time on a project. He wanted a student’s input on something that would help students learn creativity and innovation.  

That project became La Salle’s first Open Minds Challenge, held in February 2015 and focused on promoting interdisciplinary collaboration and sustainable solutions. When he graduated in Spring 2016, Onesimus became a full-time program coordinator for the Center for Entrepreneurship.

In addition to co-organizing what is now the annual Open Minds competition, Onesimus also manages a team of La Salle students from different majors. These students help local companies with marketing, branding, finance and other business-related topics. 

This, Onesimus says, is beneficial to both parties; the work allows the students understand how start and run a business. 

Onesimus said that his position as a recent student helps him considerably in his work. “When you can see things from a younger generations’ viewpoint, it’s easier to have the right type of empathy or understanding of students’ needs,” he said. 

Another vital part of Onesimus’s job is designing new ways to benefit students, and seeing new opportunities for impact. As a Fellow, Onesimus worked with other La Salle Fellows including RJ Lualhati and Kenneth Brewer to turn an underutilized space in the basement of the library into a makerspace called the Innovation Factory.

“A lot of students think that innovation and entrepreneurship are these big scary business terms,” he said.

“It’s really important, and enlightening to me, that you can apply those terms to anything. I enjoy showing students that you can take whatever you’re passionate about, and turn it into something that will benefit you and others.”

Connecting Students and Companies

Fellows often use start-ups as a way to involve other students in innovation and entrepreneurship. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

When Fellow David Shull arrived at Michigan Tech in 2010 as a computer software engineering major, he dreamed of working for Apple. However, he discovered that his school’s connection to Apple was slim.

During his time in school, David connected with fellow student Garrett Lord. In 2014, Garrett offered him an opportunity to be the first employee at a startup he and other Michigan Tech students had founded called Handshake. 

This career network and recruiting platform connects universities, students, alumni and companies. The founders created Handshake to address their shared frustrations as students when they tried to find meaningful career opportunities at a remote campus.

“Garrett told me I could go work with a big company in Silicon Valley, or I could join Handshake and level the playing field for students so that everyone had a fair shot at their dream job, regardless of their socioeconomic background or where they happened to go to school,” David said. He took the job, and leads the company’s university growth efforts.

David also brought another Michigan Tech Fellow to Handshake. Brad Turner worked with David on UIF projects while in school, and he is now a leader on the company’s student product team.

Today, David said Apple and thousands of other companies are connecting with Michigan Tech and with the hundreds of universities using Handshake: “We’ve completely changed how college recruiting works at these campuses.”

In SINC with Students

A number of Fellows start student clubs and organizations as a vehicle to transform learning at their schools. This story is an excerpt from Designing for Change.

In 2016, Vanessa Ganaden, a business major from Cal State Fullerton, discovered an interesting club at her school that connected engineering and business students. At the time, she said the club seemed focused on the business students helping raise money for the engineers. She wondered why there wasn’t more of these types of collaborations at her school, and how she might help the club bring together even more disciplines.

When Vanessa started her UIF training shortly afterwards, she realized that redesigning this club would be the perfect project to focus on. During training, the emphasis the UIF team placed on talking with potential users was one of the biggest takeaways for Vanessa. Along with Fellow-in-training Lorenzo Santos, Vanessa spent time talking with students, faculty and administrators to understand their perspectives and share their vision. 

“They understood the need, but hadn’t done anything because they knew it was difficult to bring together people from different majors,” she said.

She and Lorenzo discussed types of workshops that would appeal to students from different majors. They also wanted the club to add value so that students would learn practical tools and strategies to help them transition to their jobs. 

And so SINC was born — the Student Innovation Collaborative. Vanessa said that it’s the first multidisciplinary club at Fullerton. Their first workshops were focused on helping students learn skills relevant to the workplace, with visiting speakers and activities that helped them learn how to network and pitch. After a year, Yumi Liang, another Fellow, joined them, and they shifted direction of the club towards design thinking. 

Inspired by Design for America and the’s Extreme by Design course, the team created project-based workshops focused on social causes. In Fall 2017, SINC students visited a homeless encampment to interview people and design solutions for them. In Spring 2018, the club worked on campus issues. In the last two years, more than 120 students have been part of SINC.

Vanessa said that the the SINC story is more than just the projects the students work on. She’s seen friendships and collaborations born, and participants taking away valuable life lessons. “SINC is about community and the students who are coming together to learn,” she said.   

Vanessa graduated in May 2018 and reflected on her time with SINC. “In UIF, we all share this bond of doing something bigger than ourselves,” she said. “Fullerton has been a great school for me. I am grateful for my experience there and I wanted to give back. This was my way.”