Students as change agents: Leveraging students to infuse innovation and entrepreneurship into the campus ecosystem
Engineering students have many opportunities to engage in existing co-curricular activities such as robotics clubs and Engineers Without Borders. However, students have fewer opportunities to be exposed to innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) learning opportunities, which provide them with essential skills that are valued by employers and necessary to help them identify and tackle big problems in an increasingly complex world. Changing the culture and structures of a campus to provide curricular, co-curricular and informal opportunities to engage in I&E requires a systemic approach. Engineering students are often an untapped resource for making this campus-based change. Epicenter, an NSF STEP center, is driven by the mission of empowering US undergraduate engineering students to bring their ideas to life for the benefit of our economy and society. Epicenter conducts research, works with faculty and, through the University Innovation Fellows (UIF) program, has spawned a student-led grassroots movement for infusing I&E into the higher education ecosystem.
Nearly 300 Fellows from 115 institutions in seven cohorts have gone through the UIF training. Student participants, known as “Fellows,” acquire knowledge of tools, frameworks and program models that help college students develop their creative confidence and an entrepreneurial mindset. The Fellows work with other students as well as faculty, administrators and other stakeholders in their communities to systematically expand the campus ecosystem for I&E. Fellows organize events, secure and transform physical spaces for student collaboration, contribute to course development, and engage administrators. Many of the Fellows go on to influence the national conversation on I&E by organizing regional events and participating in forums that present at national conferences, such as ASEE and University Economic Development Association (UEDA) Annual Meeting, among others. They also actively contribute to White House STEM initiatives, launching campaigns such as #uifresh, which aims at curbing attrition from STEM majors by engaging incoming university students in I&E activities early on.
Annual and alumni surveys suggest both Fellows and their faculty sponsors find students to be an effective resource for making campus-based change. Questions this paper will explore include: How can we define success at the individual and institutional level? What personal, programmatic and contextual factors correlate with success? Drawing from a database of program participants’ experiences and institutional characteristics, we aim at providing a deeper understanding of how students can best be engaged as change agents in higher education in general, and engineering education in particular.
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