Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore

Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of reddit, states in his new book, Without Their Permission: The 21st Century Will Be Made, Not Managed, an idea “is worthless.” I agree, sort of, but in my book review I amend his statement. To me, an idea is worthless if the idea is never executed. So, let’s see if someone will execute my worthless idea.

Honestly, my idea isn’t entirely unique. In fact, I’m sure my idea has been executed at some university and I’m just ignorant of the fact. But, let me give you some background details first.

Part of my job is to promote GIS, mapping, and spatial learning on my campus. GIS, GISc, and geospatial technology are fields and disciplines recognized by the U.S. Department of Commerce as being some of the fastest growing employment areas in the United States. I get out once in while and walk about campus and try to get people interested in mapping, GIS, GPS, mobile mapping and technology.

In my role of advocating GIS and mapping science across my campus, I’ve come in contact with a wide variety of interesting people who are engaged in some really interesting stuff. Developing iOS programming apps, building sensors with Arduino, constructing animated art using RaspberryPi boards and researching swarm algorithms for use in small robots to name a few projects. In talking with faculty and staff across campus, I soon realized in spite of our cozy campus faculty and staff were not really aware of what each other were doing across campus. Computer science might not know Graphic Arts & Design was using RaspberryPi and teaching programming. Graphic Arts & Design might have no idea Engineering Physics had a 3D printer and was teaching design and programming. Within a single large department like Biology, faculty might not realize both Computer Science students and Engineering Physics students are helping develop apps for tracking water quality or building mechanisms for trapping insects.

When I realized how much stuff was going on yet how little people realized what was occurring on campus, I decided to do something about the lack of communication. I put some thought into what I wanted, did some googling of “idea labs” and “fabrication labs” and “idea sparks” and such to get a sense of what direction I might head. I settled on “RacerWerx,” a combination of our school’s mascot, plus a phonetic modification of “works,” based on some sites themed upon the notion of foundries and ironworks and making things from scratch. And, “werx” seemed to be “hip,” and “now,” and “cool” at the time.

RacerWerx is simply a blog I created to help educate people on my campus about STEM-based activities which for one reason or another never seem to have found a unified outlet for promotion. To borrow from the blog:

“RacerWerx represents like-minded faculty, staff, and students, drawn from a multitude of disciplines, working together to explore new technologies and address real-world problems. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle is quoted as saying, and RacerWerx represents the knowledge and experience of many, brought together to explore, use, and educate others in the use of 21st century technologies, like Arduino, 3D printers, 3D scanner, mobile application development, RaspberryPi, and innovative systems.”

I don’t want you to steal my blog, RacerWerx, though. Do so would be boring and not get you anywhere. I want you to steal the idea of RacerWerx and then execute, i.e. put into action, this idea.

See, I feel some parts of our educational system need to be … disrupted; disrupted in the sense walls, obstacles, and entrenched thinking need to be torn down, the inner workings laid bare, to discriminate between what is really important and needs to be kept and what is simply “turf,” the inner politics which develop inside any system to protect positions, authority, bureaucracy, and perhaps egos. These elements among others, do a disservice to the primary goal of Education, to promote a better society through education by providing those needing knowledge and skills a means to challenge and enhance their intellect. Whether “turf” or “stove-piping” is the preferred term, the behavior is really contrary to the holistic nature of learning, fundamentally.

All learning should be holistic. A person cannot learn economics without learning geography. A person cannot learn history without learning geography. Geography is elementary to chemistry and biology. Notice a theme? I’m a professional geographer so I see everything through a geographic lens. And Mathematics underpins all. Even a geographer must admit Mathematics lies at the root of All 🙂

I believe colleges and universities should strive to make all disciplines interdisciplinary. Economics involves math, statistics, geography, history and any faculty economics instructor worth their salt should impress upon students these relationships. Same in biology, history, engineering. No one can say with 100% certainty they will not be impressed or influenced by something they learn in a course outside of their major or minor area of study. As educators, we are charged not with protecting our field or discipline but by illuminating to all how our field or discipline affects and is affected by all others.

With RacerWerx, the idea is breakdown barriers between fields and disciplines, colleges and departments, and advocate for more open and broader educational learning opportunities – and then see what happens, see where students take what they learn.

Specifically, I want this:

I want a single point-of-contact with faculty, staff, and students, and open laboratory 2,000-5,000 square feet. Part of the facility would include an array of computers used for faculty-run workshops. These workshops would train people on 3D printing, 3D scanning, or perhaps mobile application development. I would like an array of 3D printers and 3D scanners with suitable design software. I would like desks for students to use to collaborate on projects and research.

Furthermore, I want students to manage the facility. I want the facility operated and managed by students, students from any college or department. Assuming business students should be groomed for operating the facility is wrong, honestly. A student in design or engineering might have aspirations of running their own business. Thus, any interested student should be allowed to participate in this student-operated venture.

Additionally, I want students to make good stuff, applications, art, designs, products, and I want them to have the opportunity to sell their work. Colleges and universities are looking for ways to enhance revenue, and student are looking for way to obtain real-world experience. Open a student-operated and student-supplied “Student Store.” In the Student Store, allow the students to sell the fruits of their labors. The university keeps a fraction, say 40%, students keep 60%. Students run the store, from keeping it staffed and stocked, charting sales, promotion and marketing, the whole shebang. Faculty acts as mentors and advisers.

The store should be in a prominent location, as we all know from geography, location is everything. The student union would be a good place, or a dining hall, or a residence hall. Imagine this: parents arrive for orientation and are shown the Student Store. They learn the store is run by students representing many different fields. Parents learn the items for sale are produce on-campus, by students in Graphic Arts & Design, Engineering, Computer Science, maybe even Nursing or Agriculture. Who knows? And, why limit? When parents see students engaged in real-world activities, managing a business, managing labor, marketing, promotion – the entire ecosystem of industry – what parent in their right mind would walk their student off that campus?

In all fairness, the last bit is not entirely my idea. I spoke with a person at Makerbot, Wallace Patterson, the Makerbot Education Account Manager. We chatted on the phone about what it would take to get a Makerbot Innovation Center (MIC) at my university. As we tossed ideas around, our conversation coalesced around the idea of a student run gift shop featuring items produced directly or indirectly from the MIC as a means of cost recovery. Everything within universities today always involves a conversation about “How do we justify the cost?” or “How do we recover the cost, plus make this effort self-sustaining?” We then hit upon the notion of creating a student gift shop which might help defray some of the costs of a MIC.

My success in promoting all of the above can’t be measured at this point, unfortunately. Some faculty read the blog, on occasion. But I have to say the idea really hasn’t caught on as I hoped.

However, the idea might catch on at another college or university.

So, steal my idea!! Please!!

Then, email me and tell me about your success. Or, email me, anyway, if you already have experience with any of the above and let me know how things are working for you.




2 thoughts on “Promote Innovation in Higher Education Using a StudentStore

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

  2. Pingback: The Not-So-Nimble Case of Higher Education | Constant Geography

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