The newest group of University Innovation Fellows is working on projects they hope will change Texas Tech University and their local communities.
A group of Texas Tech University students is using innovation and entrepreneurialism to create connections on campus, in Lubbock and across the country.
Alfonso Alarcon, a junior industrial engineering major from Mexico; Alberto Garcia, a freshman computer engineering major from Shallowater; Isaac Griswold-Steiner, a junior computer science major from Austin; Alyx Horace, a sophomore management information systems major from Farmington, New Mexico; and Jared Steele, a junior business management major from Arlington form a cohort representing Texas Tech as part of the 2016 class of Epicenter's University Innovation Fellows.
About the program
The program, run by the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Stanford University and VentureWell, empowers student leaders across the nation to increase campus engagement with innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and design-thinking. The Texas Tech fellows join 150 other students chosen from 47 higher education institutions across the U.S.
Jennifer Horn, director of translational research and entrepreneurialism in the Office of the Vice President for Research, said the program enables students to become agents of change at their schools.
“Students are trained on program models that help develop an entrepreneurial mindset,” Horn said. “They undergo a six-week intensive online training and attend a national meet-up at the Institute of Design at Stanford and Google headquarters.”
The event gives fellows a chance to meet students from the other universities and provides more training on how to implement change on their campuses, she added. Since joining the program in 2015, Texas Tech has had 10 fellows.
“Because this is a new program, we are just now hitting critical mass. The previous cohort held a Do-Think-Make event to teach design thinking to students from engineering, the Honors College and students from South Plains College,” Horn said. “One alumni of the program continues to work as an evaluator for the GLEAMM Spark Fund, vetting Texas Tech technologies for investments from the fund.”
Horn said a pre-engineering student from South Plains College is included in each cohort.
“We currently have one Texas Tech innovation fellow who started as a fellow from South Plains,” Horn said. “Another fellow is a pre-engineering student at South Plains now. On our campus this semester, we have seven active fellows. They represent the Whitacre College of Engineering, Rawls College of Business and the Honors College.”
Past cohorts have included fellows from the College of Agriculture Sciences and Natural Resources and the College of Arts & Sciences.
“This is not just for business or engineering students,” Horn said. “We need creative input and creative people to drive this movement on campus. I welcome any student with an idea for an entrepreneurial course or event to contact me. Often the best, most creative ideas come from students.”
Students are nominated to be fellows by student leaders, faculty and staff who have witnessed their commitment to entrepreneurialism and participation in campus courses, organizations and events. Horn said those interested in becoming a fellow should make an effort to attend campus events at the Innovation Hub and Research Park, hear guest speakers and become involved in the entrepreneurial organizations throughout the university. Program leaders are looking for those students who help bring about positive, lasting changes to their campus.
Past fellows have attended national events, like the White House Maker Faire, which focuses on innovation, creativity and resourcefulness, and lead student events across the country.
“The Epicenter at Stanford pulls in fellows to participate in various opportunities across the nation,” Horn said. “It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to connect with a national network of entrepreneurs and change agents on university campuses.”
About the fellows
The students in this year's cohort are already hard at work identifying areas on campus and in the Lubbock community that could be improved through innovation.
“I identified two needs,” Griswold-Steiner said. “One, we don't have enough experienced software engineers on campus who can develop apps and software for startups. Two, talking to people in my department, there's way too much of a grading workload. So I'm working on an auto grader that will not only remove a lot of the grading work, but it will also help train students to more effectively produce more robust software.”
The over-arching goal of the cohort is to enhance the culture of innovation and entrepreneurship on campus. Horace said she's working on an event that focuses on regional problems, like local drought and a lack of recycling initiatives, and will bring in other UIF students from Texas and the surrounding states to brainstorm solutions.
“I'm hosting a regional meet-up here at Texas Tech. It's a two-day weekend where we showcase what our campus does and our Innovation Hub,” Horace said. “We'll host a lot of workshops and creative activities.”
Garcia also is working on an event that will bring other innovators together.
“My individual project is focused on bridging the gap between different disciplines through the implementation of an interdisciplinary design-thinking event,” Garcia said. “The goal is to promote and support more collaboration between different disciplines, in order to create not only a new way of thinking, but new, unique ideas and innovations as well.”
Two of the fellows are working on projects that will create bonds not only between local organizations and Texas Tech students, but also middle and high school students. Steele hopes to host “Hackaconf,” a hackathon and research conference, this October.
“Essentially, we're pulling together high school students as well as Texas Tech students. They are presented with a problem and are expected to use some sort of technology that they come up with in order to potentially solve this problem,” Steele said. “We're teaming up with some alumni and the whole idea is we're really just trying to get more students involved and push them to some limits they were not planning on.”
Alarcon said he also is focusing on creating relationships between Texas Tech students and local economic development organizations like the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce. This fall, he plans to funnel those connections into the middle and high school students in the chamber's Young Entrepreneurs Academy, a yearlong after-school program that teaches students the basics of how to launch a business.
“They learn how to do market research, talk to potential customers, do financial projections and then some of them actually launch their business,” Alarcon said.
The goal is to connect the students with the existing entrepreneurial culture at Texas Tech, he said. Alarcon also is working on a community service project that lets students who already have their own ventures mentor high school students interested in entrepreneurship.
“We want to develop the region's and the university's future innovation ecosystem,” Alarcon said. “If we invest in these high school students, eventually they are going to be the ones leading these entrepreneurial efforts.”
While each of the fellows has taken on an individual project to benefit the campus in some way, all the members of the cohorts also are heavily involved in on- and off-campus group projects. Their contributions require minimal investment of faculty and staff time, Horn said.
“They present workshops as classes for courses on campus, they plan events for students in the various colleges,” Horn said. “They partner with entrepreneurial groups on campus such as Texas Tech Innovation Mentorship and Entrepreneurship, Media Entrepreneurship and Innovation Group, and Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization, to host events.”
Students interested in becoming part of a future cohort should work to show their interest in innovation and entrepreneurship, both in and out of the classroom, Steele said. The hard work may pay off with a nomination to a future class of fellows and connections that will last a lifetime.
“You're paired up with some really brilliant students who have a very definite direction of where they want to go,” Steele said. “It's a really awesome working opportunity.”