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Innovation Center aims to stimulate creative thinking.

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Students use mobile white boards as room dividers while collaborating. Post-It notes are used for untested ideas, dry erase markers for more certain ones. The University of Portland has taken a leaf out of Stanford’s book, becoming the first Oregon college to open an Innovation Center.

It is more than just a room with mobile whiteboards, a foursome of big monitors and comfy furniture. The center attempts to help students learn the way they prefer (collaboratively) and also to learn one of the most valuable skills in the modern American marketplace: innovation.

A part of the Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, the newly opened space is a laboratory opened on Oct. 12. Classes can book the room to brainstorm a project, from making a mobile app to delivering a social service for the homeless.

“It’s a whole new way of learning, of being able to do things as opposed to just hear things,” says Peter Rachor, UP’s Director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Franz Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“It’s a place for brainstorming and collaborating, but also pretotyping.”

Pretotyping?

“I first heard the word in Denmark. To pretotype is to take cardboard and foam board and glue and pipe cleaners and stickies and make a rough model before it is prototyped and becomes something fancier.”

The furniture is modular, with students encouraged to break away from the main tables and huddle on stools. The white boards take dry erase markers, but they are also festooned with Post-It notes. These sticky paper notes represent untested ideas, or hypotheses. “They’re ideas where we don’t know the outcome, we haven’t talked to people and tested the hypotheses and refined them.”

This collaborative, fluid way of thinking, wherein failure is not repressed, has emerged at around the same time as the software industry over the last 25 years.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Peter Rachor, University of Portland's Director for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the Franz Center for Leadership, Entrepreneurship, and Innovation. Rachor's students designed an innovation center for all students to use for brainstorming new projects. The goal is to produce workers who use design thinking to collaborate and create new goods and services.

Iterate, Agitate, Organize

“They discover as they build. They iterate, and iteration is not a bad thing. We used to teach that there was one right answer, but every single problem doesn’t have one right answer.”

For example, he says it’s not enough that the Tilikum Crossing has to stand up and carry traffic. “It has to be culturally sensitive, and part of the city’s ecosystem. We didn’t used to teach that to engineers, that it had to be desirable, and viable, and fit in the city’s grand plan.”

The students are learning more than just how to play nicely together.

“The bigger part is to empathize: to learn to look at things from other points of view. That’s a big part of design thinking.”

Rachor says that learning does not usually teach innovation.

“Much learning is preparing you go to work in Nike or Mercy Corps and do something that has been done for many years. We’re trying to prepare students to create something that hasn’t been done before. That could be anything: a new business, a new sneaker, a new chip or new ways of doing education or social work.”

His slogan is “Entrepreneurism is about making ideas happen.”

Rachor says in the innovation workplace, people have to interact with other disciplines: the bio mechanic with the nurse, the writer with the chemist.

“That’s the way they’re going to be working when they leave here.”

Tune in, drop in

The Innovation Center also hosts “open lab” time, when students can hang out and find a person or project that inspires them. They might need a graphic designer, a software developer or a mechanical engineer. The school already has 3D printers and routers for making objects, in the engineering department, but they weren’t as accessible to non-engineers.

The space was designed by the students with little help from UP staff. It grew out of the University Innovation Fellows, a program which is headquartered at Stanford but is a separate organization. It runs a student-led innovation movement in which 170 schools participate.

“He came back (from the d. School, also known as the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University) and said ‘We need one of those, an innovation lab!’” Rachor says echoing the student’s enthusiasm.

It’s not just a Pamplin School of Business facility (Robert B. Pamplin also owns the Portland Tribune and the Business Tribune.) It is for all majors and all years. Around a third of the users are business majors, a third engineering and a third everything else.

“We tell the students, ‘Go book the Innovation space and go brainstorm.’ It could be your new motor to generate electricity in a more efficient way, or solve the homelessness issue in Portland, or an approach to doing healthcare for new populations,” he says, reeling off examples students have already started working on.

SmithCFI is a local Steelcase dealer that put the lab together. Steelcase is known for its research into how youth learn and adults work. Many colleges and workplaces are adopting their bean bag/cozy couch/library carousel style of work place.

Pop up culture

“People say, ‘Well it’s a room with screens, what’s the big deal?’ But the space and the furniture are very much on the fly. Everything depends on the student’s approach to the situation.”

Speakers are invited in for pop up classes. “The students come up with a subject they want to learn something about, such as how to launch a product, how to make a logo. And they find someone to come and leads the class.” That could be a student, a professional or a professor.

Rachor used to live and work in Silicon Valley. He has ins with several companies. The Innovation Fellows go to Google for the day.

“A place like Google, they’re seeing scores of visits a day. They have a whole department dealing with it, it’s part of their HR department. The students who are interested are the sort of students they want to hire, regardless of their major.”

Students have to make a selfie video explaining their vision. (Given that students make videos to apply for college and for grants, this is a useful skill.) The student who pushed for UP’s own Innovation Center now works for NurseGrid, which was started by a UP alum and employs five others.

COURTESY: UNIVERSITY OF PORTLAND - Students of all majors are encouraged to learn innovation at the new UP innovation center.

Give us a T

Different majors are encouraged use the center, from biomedical engineers to political science majors. “Political Science majors want to make change. For example in the way homelessness is dealt with. Political science students are good at processes, they’re systems thinkers, but they have a hard time figuring out where to begin and end, because the thing is already running.”

Rachor talks about “T-shaped students.” The (vertical) base of the T is their major, like engineering or finance. The top (horizontal) of the T is how they apply it, such as making an app or addressing homelessness.

So for poli-sci majors, the value is that “it’s less campaign-oriented than it is systemic change-oriented. As students they’re more focused on a problem than a candidate.”

Not bucketed

Rachor believes that even without the center students would naturally self-organize this way because of the complexity of the world. His father and grandfather were accountants who worked for General Motors, and that’s all they did. Rachor studied finance, but is on his twelfth job, three of which were at his own startups. He expects the number of jobs held by his students to far exceed twelve in their lifetime.

“They can explore knowledge in many directions. In college my main source of knowledge was a book. But now students are not so bucketed or delineated.”

Still, you can’t learn everything from a Post-It note and Wikipedia: students will still have to know their basics. They have to know the base of the T before they can cross pollinate their thinking on the horizontal part of the T.

“You can’t fake civil engineering. Building a bridge takes hardcore engineering, and in nursing, much of it is about how to deliver medication. This is what employers are looking for.”

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