Four Virginia Tech students are working to enhance the university experience for all students by strengthening opportunities for collaboration and cultivating a culture of design thinking, creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship on campus.

Alisha Bajaj, a junior majoring in computational modeling and data analytics; Isa Nunez Nova, a sophomore chemical engineering major; Michael Rauco, a sophomore majoring in biochemistry; and William Makowski, a graduate student in an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program focused on human-centered design, are Virginia Tech’s 2019-2020 University Innovation Fellows (UIF). Run by Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, also known as the, the program empowers university students across the globe to serve as advocates for change and contribute to conversations about the future of higher education.

A growing community of student leaders, 2,200 University Innovation Fellows across the country are creating new opportunities to help their peers develop an entrepreneurial mindset, build creative confidence, seize opportunities, define problems, and address global challenges through human-centered design.

Representing undergraduate and graduate students from different disciplines, the Virginia Tech team is working to kick-start a student-led innovation movement at the university.

The student fellows participated in six weeks of intensive online training with Stanford During this training, they learned a human-centered design approach to problem-solving, conducting interviews with students, faculty, and administration, as well as extensive research on the current state of innovation at Virginia Tech. They identified a general disconnect between curricular and co-curricular offerings and a lack of transdisciplinary opportunities. They determined that Virginia Tech students are seeking a more holistic university experience, particularly one that helps them to make connections across boundaries.

After surveying hundreds of students to confirm the direction for their change project, the fellows are collaborating with stakeholders from Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs and Undergraduate Academic Affairs on initiatives that expand opportunities for students to bridge their interests for a more cohesive and transdisciplinary university experience. In addition, the fellows hold pop-up events and workshops across campus. For example, they will be exhibitors at ICAT Creativity + Innovation Day on May 4.

Last semester, team members were recognized for successfully completing training, joining a cohort of 360 students from 90 higher education institutions in 13 countries who were named University Innovation Fellows for 2019. They were recognized during a special pinning ceremony, where each student received a UIF pin by Benjamin Knapp, executive director of the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT). Knapp serves as program sponsor for the University Innovation Fellows, while David Lally, academic and student support advisor for biochemistry, and Leigh Lally, university space manager, are Virginia Tech program leads. This program is funded in part by 4-VA, a collaborative partnership for advancing the Commonwealth of Virginia.

This semester, the team will continue to review and assess its findings, identify best practices, and prototype its change project for implementation. The students will also have the opportunity to participate in the program’s signature Silicon Valley Meetup in California, where they will take part in immersive experiences at Google and Stanford University and work with leaders in education and industry. They will participate in experiential workshops and exercises focused on topics that include human-centered design, spaces for innovation, design of learning experiences, and new models for change in higher education.

Since the program was launched at Virginia Tech in 2017, it has been endorsed by the president and provost as an opportunity for empowering students to envision the university’s future in support of the Beyond Boundaries initiative and to strategically address the challenges and opportunities presented by the changing landscape of higher education.

Next year, the new cohort of students will engage in the Tech for Humanity initiative, led by Sylvester A. Johnson, assistant vice provost for the humanities and founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, providing an opportunity to lend the student-voice to addressing the societal impact of technological innovation through human-centered approaches. 

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