Five students are working to improve entrepreneurial opportunities at Texas Tech.
Five of Texas Tech University's most enterprising students will be recognized next week in front of some very important guests.
Francis Atore, a senior mechanical engineering major from Nairobi, Kenya; Taylor Person, a senior environmental plant and soil science major from Agaña, Guam; Valente Rodriguez, a junior mechanical engineering major from Presidio; Benjamin Simmons, a junior mechanical engineering major from Aledo; and Victoria Young, a senior cellular and molecular biology major from Shallowater, will be honored during a pinning ceremony at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday (May 20) in the Rawls College of Business to kick off Texas Tech University's National Science Foundation (NSF) Day.
The students represent Texas Tech's inaugural class of University Innovation Fellows, a nonprofit program designed to increase innovation in higher education. Its administrator, the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter), is funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Stanford University and the nonprofit VentureWell.
About the program
After being nominated by faculty members or college deans, each student must apply in a video posted to YouTube. Science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) students are preferred, but students with real leadership capacity and creativity from other disciplines could be accepted as well.
“In today's economy, it is imperative for all students to acquire an entrepreneurial mindset,” said Humera Fasihuddin, co-leader of the University Innovation Fellows program. “College graduates need to enter the workforce skilled in assessing complex problems, conceiving innovative solutions and developing scalable solutions, whether they join a company, a non-profit organization or start a new venture.”
After being accepted, students complete an entrepreneurial landscape canvass of the campus, in which they survey students and faculty to learn about current entrepreneurial programs, courses and clubs in an effort to see what is needed on the campus. All subsequent groups will continue to update the canvass. In addition to showing where entrepreneurial gaps exist on campus, the information included could help professors who are applying for grants to develop entrepreneurship courses.
“Our program provides a platform for Fellows to learn to be strategic thinkers, examine the landscape of learning opportunities at their schools and formulate action plans to implement their ideas,” said Leticia Britos-Cavagnaro, co-leader of the Fellows program and deputy director of Epicenter. “Fellows develop a community and share strategies about what's working at their schools. Ultimately, these students, with their drive and motivation, are leading accelerated change in higher education.”
After completing the canvass, the group, known as a “cohort,” then travels to Stanford for three days of training, including a trip to Google Garage. The students return and solicit peers to get involved and plan projects to increase what they call “design thinking”: looking at situations creatively and differently and finding solutions.
“UIF has been a life-changing experience,” Young said. “I have learned innovation and entrepreneurship touch everyone's life in some form or fashion. The UIF program taught me the successful methods of the lean start-up movement to apply in my approach of transforming my campus. With these skills I have helped other students find their creative potential. After hosting a design-thinking workshop, the Fellows and I enlightened other students that innovation and entrepreneurship are not far lofty goals, but rather things that are intertwined in everyday life.”
The current cohort is in the planning stages of a regional assembly for all the University Innovation Fellows in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Kansas.
“They want to have this meeting and focus on issues that matter to this region of the United States – economic development things like water, drought, wind energy, solar energy – and get all these students together to look at these kinds of problems and see if they can come up with creative ideas and solutions,” said Jennifer Horn, director of translational research and entrepreneurialism in the Office of the Vice President for Research. “That's just in the planning stages, but I think it's probably going to happen. The people from Stanford are looking at hosting it on the Texas Tech campus, which is going to be great.”
Stanford limits each university's cohort to five students at a time, and a new class of five students may be named every six months.
“I've been on bigger teams, but now I see why they limit it to five,” Atore said. “We're more productive, we're closer and we learn a lot from each other. I hope the culture is really taken up, because it's beneficial to have more cross-pollination across different departments.”
Atore, who recently graduated, is already scheduled to do interviews over the summer with the next cohort.
“Once you're an innovation fellow, you're an innovation fellow for life,” Horn said. “We have some graduating, but they still plan to stay involved with things that are going on and come back for things on campus.”
In addition to the five Texas Tech students in the cohort, a sixth member is not yet a Red Raider. Marshal Head, a South Plains College pre-engineering student from Muleshoe, will transfer to Texas Tech in the fall. He was added after Stanford offered to include students from universities' community college partners at no extra cost.
“It's a great selling point, being included in such a program,” said Ramesh Krishnan, the program sponsor at South Plains College. “This is exactly what we need, not just teaching out of books all the time, because there's plenty of that. But if we can teach a culture of innovation and change, not just taking things as they are but seeing what they want it to be, students can take those ideas into the workplace, too. That's what employers are looking for, fresh energy and ideas.”
Although some of the initial cohort graduated earlier in May, the second group has just been nominated: Jianna Davenport, a mathematics major; Jennifer Romero, majoring in natural resources management; and Mathieu Conklin and Genna Jackson, both pre-engineering students from South Plains College who plan to transfer to Texas Tech in the fall of 2016.
So with a growing number of outside-the-box thinkers soon to be on campus, will any changes soon follow?
“I don't know yet,” Horn said. “They hosted an event looking at wind turbine design. They were actually trying to come up with some designs that they could pass off to someone who could work on it and develop it. It's not imaginary stuff; it's very much real problems. Since it's funded by the National Science Foundation, they're wanting something practical to come out of all this. Once they start thinking out of the box, they come up with things that can really surprise you.”
The students have benefitted from the support of the Texas Tech administration.
“One of the largest opportunities for Texas Tech to grow and reach out into the community is through innovation and entrepreneurship,” said Texas Tech President M. Duane Nellis. “When I saw the University Innovation Fellows program in operation on other college campuses, I believed it would fit the culture we want to have here, while benefitting the students, the university and quite possibly the world.”
According to the University Innovation Fellows website, Texas Tech had the distinction of being the only campus in Texas to nominate an entire cohort of five students and a community college partner. By comparison, Prairie View A&M, University of Texas, SMU and UT-Southwestern each have one Fellow, and Texas A&M has three.
“Our goal is to provide an excellent practical research and entrepreneurial opportunity for our student Fellows,” said Robert V. Duncan, senior vice president for research. “When students experience the joys of discovery and entrepreneurial success, they will pursue such exhilaration for the rest of their professional careers.”
The program is designed to prepare students to be more innovative, develop new inventions and benefit their region economically.
“They come back ready to change the world,” Horn said.