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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Student Priorities

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Overview

The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Landscape Canvas at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is relatively well-established but is severely lacking in student involvement. This lack of involvement stems from a lack of exposure to the resources available on campus and an unclear "access point" for students to begin their involvement in the I&E Ecosystem at Rensselaer. 

Though there is a lack of involvement, Rensselaer clearly values entrepreneurship, as indicated by an excerpt of The Rensselaer Plan found below:

"It is imperative that Rensselaer students learn about opportunities to get involved in entrepreneurial pursuits early on in their college career in order for Rensselaer to effectively achieve the goals stated in the Rensselaer Plan. Entrepreneurship is a way of life that springs from fundamental education and research programs. We work to infuse understanding and encouragement of entrepreneurship through all schools and programs.(The Rensselaer Plan - 6.1 Entrepreneurship Education and Research)




Project Pitch Video

Culture of Innovation Project Pitch Video 2

Our Goals

  • Expand the Institute’s fundamental research activity in technological entrepreneurship and the management of innovation.
    • Teach the fundamentals of entrepreneurship — and intrapreneurship — to students across all majors, establishing a general curriculum requirement in this area.
    • Expand opportunities for students to create innovation by increasing the number of hands-on courses, such as: Introduction to Engineering Design, Inventors Studio, and Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory; programs such as Product Design and Innovation, and competitions such as the Formula SAE car project.
    • Provide opportunities for students to work in settings where technology is being commercialized, such as entrepreneurial faculty projects, internships, and co-op experiences.
    • Create opportunities in the Rensselaer Union and in the residence halls for students to propose, design, and implement projects, processes, and organizations. 
    • The joint venture between the NCIIA and Epicenter is all about values and empowering students, with the goal of bringing ideas to life that will be beneficial to society and to the economy. Values such as raising people, especially the most needy, out of poverty and helping them fulfill their potential. These are the kind of values that students must be empowered with and that must be ingrained into engineering education.



 

Why does RPI curriculum need to be revamped?

A majority of RPI student want to make a difference in the world. They want to change it for the better for billions of people. But, they must be equipped with the right skill sets in order to do so. Innovative and entrepreneurial thinking must be better ingrained into their education. They must learn that TECHNOLOGY has the ability to play a critical role in solving these kinds of problems. Leveraging the power of smartphones, sensors, and the Internet is key in order to create DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGIES for health, education, environment, and raising the standard of living. Integrating these values into engineering education is key to empowering students to develop a strong sense of empathy and a passionate desire to take action.

  • Some key books that are value-driven, which state that work must be based on clear values are:
    • How Will You Value Your Life - Clayton Christianson
    • Start with Why - Michael Sinek

Students and professors must be fully aware of the fact that the world has changed. Acknowledgment is not enough. RPI has an opportunity to be one of the LEADERS in using technology to benefit billions of people. Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson, the President of RPI, has made innovation and entrepreneurship one of the key goals in the Refresh Rensselaer Plan.Her input, and that of the Provost and the Deans at RPI must be heard. Their suggestions regarding the efforts to expand the ecosystem of innovation and entrepreneurship at RPI must be noted and vocalized; the department heads and heads of curriculum in each department at RPI must be drilled down with this information.

What are the Changes that MUST Be Made?

 Professor Tina Seelig said it beautifully in her Innovation Engineer talk - we must learn how to think in the terms of  "? + ? = 10" not "5 + 5 = ?". Sure, “engineers make sure bridges don’t fall down," it is their responsibility. But engineers can also create new ways to communicate, new paths to education, and new technology that makes it possible for any one person, anywhere in the world, to get the best possible healthcare and education.

Another beautiful example is Max Little's TED talk about Parkinson’s diagnosis. His innovation is massively scalable, continues to learn, and costs essentially nothing. Shouldn’t healthcare, education, and opportunity fit the same requirements? Why aren't students stretched to reach for the ideal in their designs?

The current "fundamentals first" model of education has failed to equip most students with the sort of creative confidence necessary to become an entrepreneur. The highly theoretical and intense courseload has a general lack of hands-on learning which removes the curiosity from learning and leaves little time or energy for students to work on projects outside of class. This leads to a general attitude of apathy towards learning which incentivizes a culture of "doing as little as possible to get the grade", cheating, and quite possibly binge drinking on the weekends. 


What Skills Do Our Students Need To Suceed In the Future?


“Knowledge and Thoroughness” is the current RPI motto, along with "Why not change the world?" But what will, and should, the new motto be?  "Change the world" is too vague and does not adequately point out the threats posed by inequalities. 

Students need to learn to see opportunities without being told what to do, and they need to make their visions into reality. They can't sit back asking "Why not change the world?" but rather, they need to sit back and say "How can I change the world, for the better?" "What is the next step?" "What difference can I make TODAY?" and "Am I doing work that is making an impact? Am I building the skill sets I need to do what I love?"

Technology must be focused on making life better for the 99%, not for the elite and their fancier kitchens, cars, or toys. If students learn to focus on the most needy, then everyone can use the technology. There are many people right in North Troy, New York who are struggling to survive.  THEY are our customers, not the 1%.

Overcoming The Barriers to Success

Fall 2016

1) School Curriculum

The Early Adopters and Getting the Movement Started

  •  Faculty Reach
    •  The faculty certainly have not been forced to think differently like this, but they MUST now be encouraged to think differently
    • Start with a few faculty members - the “early adopters” - who will introduce creativity, opportunity-finding, innovation, and an entrepreneurial ATTITUDE into their courses.

2) Events that Promote Entrepreneurship

  •  Events that Inspire
    • Encourage students to take their academics more seriously, and look at their learning as an opportunity to develop their portfolio of skill sets that will equip them with the tools to make a difference in the world. 
    • Gain support from alumni and from companies who hire RPI graduates.
    • Reach out to companies that advise each of the departments on campus and get input on changing the curriculum.

3) Maker Space

  • Creating a location for students to collaborate on school work, independent studies, and startups. 
    • Our school lacks a facility where students can work 24hours a day. While we do have some facilities that contain machinery and work tables, most are only open during the hours of 8am-6pm, the exact time when most students are in classes. After interviewing RPI students, it has become apparent that opening a facility open 24 hours would greatly benefit them by giving them an environment where they can work for long periods of time, when they don't have classes, and with other students.
    • We are in the process of securing a location in the "J-Building" on campus to serve as a Makerspace. We are continuing to interview students about how much this space would benefit them and how they would like it to be set up.

Spring 2017

As of spring 2017, a new makerspace for ALL students is currently up and running. "The Forge" is located in the basement of the DCC, and is equipped with five 3D printers, a 3D scanner, laser cutter, smartboard, and a touchscreen presentation monitor. [1] The space is quite impressive yet cozy. Effectiveness is yet to be gagued as the UIF team and other students are still working on promoting the club and student awareness of the space. There is also a new workshop currently in the process of being finished, which is open to all Humanities/STS students who are usually restriced from acessing the engineering workspaces.

Fall 2017

A big theme we are wokring on this semester is communication. After interviewing students we have ocme to realize that RPI has a lot of resources to offer that are not being used becaues students do not know about them. There are also a lot of restrictions that are diffiuclt to keep straight. For example, the metal shop is only available to engineers while the woodshop is only available to humanities/ STS students. Students are confused about what is available to them. Our goal is to connect the students with the resources available. Another weak spot that we found when doing the landscape canvas was that most of the classes that expose students to I&E are not taken until they are upperclassmen. This somewhat excludes freshmen and sophomores from learning about I&E.

School Curriculum and Culture

Misinterpretation of entrepreneurship

Students don't really know what a career as an entrepreneur looks like, or working on a startup. The status quo is to get an internship or a co-op, go through the general courses, and then apply for jobs as a senior. Because of this, four years of education is not looked at as "how can I build the skills required to do what I want to do", but how can I get the best grades and resume to get a job when I graduate.

Fear of the Unknown

  • Intellectual Property
    • There is much confusion about intellectual property, and many students refuse to work on personal projects in class or using RPI facilities out of a fear of "giving up their ideas" and "the school stealing our company". There needs to be some way to break down the truth with the IP policy so that students are not deterred from using the resources that their tuition is paying for.
  • Starting a Business
    • When interviewed, many younger students exclaimed that they were very interested in E&I, but since they were freshmen said things like: "I don't want to jump into a startup right away", or "I need an idea first". These statements would leave you assuming that upperclassmen would be more interested in starting businesses after gaining more experience, skills, and ideas, however, as students approach graduation, the fear of failure increases along with urgency of entering the real world and being forced to find a job. At the same time, the general excuse of upperclassmen switches to, "I'm just trying to secure a job right now so I can pay off my student loans."
  • Confidence in Skills
    • Professors and upper-class students must step up as mentors who tell students that they can achieve anything and inspire them to pursue their ideas and passions. Without that energy, students are not confident enough in the skills they already have to take a leap and learn new ones. Many of the students who didn't laugh at the question of "have you considered being an entrepreneur?" have said "I've never taken a business or entrepreneurship class" or "there's so much work in getting ownership of ideas and the patent process". We must change the general fear of failure by introducing clubs, and classes which show students that college is a safe space to be able to fail, and learn quickly from your mistakes.
  • Lack of an Interdisciplinary Entrepreneurship Community
    • There tends to be a "lonely entrepreneur syndrome" where many students who have tried starting companies but were unable to create great teams necessary to fuel their motivation. There is a huge amount of talent at RPI but no infrastructure or culture in place for students to fill spots on a startup team. Even in one of the most interdisciplinary programs, PDI, almost every semester a project encounters an issue where the project is cut short or severly limited in scope because they "don't have anyone who can code".

 


Faculty Reach

Faculty are major stakeholders in the entrepreneurship ecosystem at RPI. Professors at RPI are very passionate about their research, but they keep it seperate from their in-class teachings.

There was a class at RPI for 3 semesters titled “How To Change The World” which was geared towards engaging freshman students in design thinking, creative problem solving, and social entrepreneurship. The class was discontinued following the death of the founding professor, Burt Swersey, and has yet to be reincorporated into the curriculum. The few students who took that course, name the material taught as the primary factor in their transition towards more entrepreneurial ventures.

Entrepreneruship Events

Many students are not fully exposed to student entrepreneurship before their senior year.

By then students feel that it is too late to diverge from the path that their student loans have created for them.

Freshman, and sophomores, are left with little to motivate them towards a more entrepreneurial career. 

The few entrepreneurship events on campus are geared towards students with mature start-ups, very few are for students interested in I&E.

Student Leadership

Like schools of similar size RPI boasts a repetoire of 200 clubs.Many interests are captured and cultivated, there are a number of clubs geared towards I&E. These clubs keep student interest high,so there is a large amount of dedication. A leader's energy must be able to keep that interest high and keep clubs running and growing faculty advisement. In many of the clubs geared toward entrepreneurial endeavors a culture of “doing” is not being cultivated.

Currently, a lack of focus on transitioning leadership in many clubs and innovative organizations has led to a either stagnation or a reverse in progress. RPITalks, a club that hosted events similar to TEDx talks, is a recent example of a lack of student leadership. RPITalks disbanded after its founding member, Jay, graduated from RPI.  Jay, spearheaded the program and the formation of events, but a successor did not emerge organically from the club members. Jay lacked the skills needed to train someone to lead after him and many of the underclassmen members felt they lacked the entrepreneurial skills to continue the club.

For these clubs to thrive, ideally, there would be a ripple effect of excitement coming from the leaders flowing to the newest members.

Consistent Branding, Location and Organization of Existing Resources

The entrepreneurship resources facilitated by, or partnered with, RPI are reserved for start-ups that have matured and have working products.

The branding of these financial or organizational tools are largely inconsistent and are not widely publicized. 

Our Plan [Fall 2017]

1.     Resource Management/Awareness

a.      Short Term: Posters

                                                   i.     Create posters that teach students about resources available to them on campus

                                                  ii.     Create a poster that has a tool matrix showing students where on campus each tool is located. These can be placed

                                                           in classrooms that host classes that require you to build as well as in the student Union.

                                                 iii.     Digitize all posters and post to RPI Facebook and Reddit.

b.      Long Term: Website

                                                   i.     Create a website that has all the information needed about resources on campus for I&E project

                                                  ii.     Tool matrix with links on what each tool is used for.

                                                 iii.     Information on each maker space and who has access to each.

                                                iv.     List of clubs and other opportunities such as competitions and incubators for students to get more involved in.

2.      Entrepreneurial Independent Study

a.      A course which allows students to continue a project they have previously been working on either in class or in their own time and receive elective credit if approved by an instructor. Acts as a moderate integration of an immersive learning opportunity into academics without significant curriculum changes.

b.      Short term: Run a trial of this class next semester

c.      Long term: Create an I&E ecosystem around this class similar to RCOS.

Our Plan [Spring 2017]

  1.  Resource Management/Awareness
    1. Short Term: Advertisements - The “geeky” culture at RPI presents interesting advertisement opportunities
      1. Bouncy balls could be used to advertise for events by placing a large pile of them in areas that are heavily trafficked. And inviting students to collect them
      2. The sidewalks and pathways that dissect the campus can also be used to advertise for events. Colorful displays will always draw attention to its contents.
      3. Tarps painted with advertisements or cool art can be used like the bouncy balls to attract attention in high trafficked areas.
    2. Long Term: Database systems
      1. A database and matching system to connect students across campus with students depending on their mutual skills and interests.
        1. Further: A database for keeping track of competitions and funding opportunities for businesses of all sizes to use.
      2. Shareable Google Calendars so students can easily get updates on the on-campus events and workshops geared towards entrepreneurship and innovation
  2.  Design Thinking and Innovation Teaching Modules
    1. Short-Term Goal
      1. Faculty as important stakeholders in this process,who are key to the entrepreneurial framework. Modules to help them integrate I&E into their course materials and lessons.
      2. Credibility must be established. If the faculty don’t trust our information, then they will not incorporate our message
        1. Contacting established entrepreneurs like Elon Musk (SpaceX/Tesla) and Ben Silberstein (Pinterest)
        2. These connections and their insights will make our message clearer and more effective.
        3. Emphasis the need for students in building great companies.
    2. Long Term:
      1. More of an emphasis on I&E in classes that are a part of the core structure of an Engineering degree
      2. Required courses for first year students about I&E to engage them earlier in their career.
  3. Freshman Orientation Workshop
    1. Short-Term
      1. Connect with RPI organizations that already engage with prospective freshman and early freshman
      2. Connect with organizations with established programs
        1. The Virginia Tech module
        2. 3-Day Startup
    2. Long-Term
      1. Annual MAKE RPI event
        1. Students create and organize their own clubs, projects, bands, etc.
  4. Wall of Opportunity
    1. Short Term:
      1. A  space for students to post opportunities to fill gaps in the students groups or start-ups
        1. Or  for students to post their skills and interests
      2. The space will debut on Febuary 1st at the annual RPI Sophomore Symposium
    2. Long Term:
      1. Create social media accounts to facilitate the expansion of start-up and business opportunities
      2. Example: An Instagram to share student projects and showcase entrepreneurs.
      3. End goal is to digitize the wall of opportunity
  5. TIES (Tech Innovation and Entrepreneurship Society) 
    1. Create a society which connects students, faculty, and alumni to work together on projects, startups, and research. TIE in all the resources and make them available to students. "Missionaries" for I&E" to spread a culture of innovation. Tacking the cultural problems at RPI by increasing the community and expanding it to those who currently are not involved.

Overall Goal for RPI

To change the culture and curriculum of RPI to teach students to think critically and creatively, to adopt an entrepreneurial mindset, and to create a habitat where students can apply what they have learned to their own personal startups, clubs, and organizations.

Related Links

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

University Innovation Fellows

Fall 2017:

Jacquelyn Demshick

Jacqueline Curtsinger

Ria Shroff

Spring 2017:

Zaire Johnson

Vincent Arena

Spring 2016:

Jim Boulter

Jordan Dunne

Ray Parker

Hayley Roy Gill

Spring 2014:

Meghan Olson