Fostering Education Through Student Incubators

Technology is challenging to stay on top of. Seems like every day a new tablet, a new smartphone, or a new version of Android is released. The changing legal environment of social networks adds another dimension to technologies complexity. The number of programming languages required for technology development only Zaphod Beeblebrox would be able to count on all hands.

Colleges and universities struggle against rapidly changing technological needs, cuts to financing, and striving to educate students with necessary skills to be productive in a rapidly globalizing workforce. With online educational opportunities such as those offered by OpenCourseware and Coursera growing in popularity colleges and universities could find themselves fighting for relevancy in a few short years.

How, then, to educate, train, and remain relevant?

One opportunity gaining some legs is the idea of “student incubators.”

What is a “student incubator?” A few years ago the buzzword zipping among campuses   across the country was “business incubator.” The idea of colleges and universities hosting business incubators was to attract businesses and industries to higher education facilities in order to foster a greater level of involvement between public and private entities. The private sector has the knowledge of the business world and money, while colleges have access to research dollars, students needing to gain experience, and faculty interested in research. The Federal Government encouraged cooperation by tying grant funding to proposals which detailed private and public interactions.

At Ivory Tower State University, a “business incubator” was built 1/2-mile from the main campus. With funds from the Department of Commerce, the Commonwealth, and Ivory Tower State University, an attractive, two-story brick building was constructed on nice property on a busy two-lane state highway. The Innovation and Commercialization Center (ICC) opened in 2002 and has enjoyed pretty much zero  tenants. The building was essentially a shell, with the inside to be completed by whoever decided the lease the place. With millions of dollars of construction yet to be done, few startups wanted to dump their investment capital into architecture and design of office space. My point being, the “business incubator” idea was sort of a flash-in-the-pan.

Over the weekend, I ran across a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education which referred to “developing student entrepreneurship.” Student entrepreneurship was to be fostered through “student incubators.” Rather than try to work with mature business and industry partners, colleges and universities are recruiting high school students, community college transfers, and current students. These students are then given the opportunity, supplies, some financial resources, as well as faculty guidance in assisting them with a startup.

University of Wisconsin – Madison

Oklahoma State University

Florida State University

For more on student incubators: 

Bloomberg Business Week, Sept 23, 2010

Bloomberg News, May 17, 2012, Austin, TX, May 3, 2012

MichiganRadio, Ann Arbor, MI, April 26, 2012

UCDavis News & Information, University of California – Davis, CA, May 8, 2012

Of immediate concern to many universities is drastic cuts in state funding. In recent memory, universities were able to farm out work to application developers, consultants, and independent contractors. Honestly, many colleges and universities were living high on the hog, and were not doing much to restrain costs. Times are now different, and will remain so for years to come.

Ivory Tower State University is no different. Looking at how ITSU funds projects, I wonder if some of ITSU’s efforts might be better directed to using on-campus expertise. For example, ITSU contracted with an outside developer for a new web site. The only users who enjoy the new web site are those who contracted out the work. The rest of the user community, i.e. the world, believes the new web site is an atrocity. Adding insult to injury the cost of the new design was the equivalent to a new Harley-Davidson Softtail. Personally, I’d rather have the old web site and the new HD.

Why could a new web site not have been created in-house? Could a new web site not be developed by the in-house web team? Or, could the faculty, staff, and students of the Computer Science department have been invited to submit a number of web site prototypes? Or, perhaps even better, why could not a campus-wide contest be offered for the design of a new ITSU web site? Instead, ITSU is suffering under a crappy web site which no one wants to update.

An ecosystem of education, training, development along with the cost-benefit savings of conducting activities in-house could go a long way towards providing real-world experience for students and teaching moments for faculty. A college web site administered by faculty-student teams could provide opportunities for considerable involvement for all parties; the college gets a fresh, up-to-date, low-cost web site, faculty are able to research, explore, develop, and mentor, and students gain exposure to a variety of Internet technologies. Everyone wins.

Colleges and universities need to avail themselves to local talent and encourage, mentor, and nurture students wanting to expand their horizons. Colleges and universities have missions to serve their communities, provide opportunities, and public higher education institutions should be committed to ensuring responsible use of state money. “Incubating” students knowledge and skills seems like a no-brainer to me.


One thought on “Fostering Education Through Student Incubators

  1. Pingback: Higher Education Needs A Start-Up Mindset | Constant Geography

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