Wednesday, April 20, 2011

I Think I Can! The Student Engine

By Keith McDowell

Jocks versus nerds! How quaint and twentieth century. Tiger versus the “whatever” wired zombie! Or is that characterization already passé? Society loves to pigeon hole the young with stereotypical imagery. It’s a sport and a game – a generational contest. We could blame it on Viagra, but it’s always been there – perhaps now enhanced and accelerated. Should we simply enjoy and be amused by the contest as a spectator or is there a deeper meaning? Should we, or can we, manipulate the rules to achieve a more positive benefit to society? How did we become so accepting of the status quo?

Children truly believe in the little engine that could. The simple incantation of “I think I can” is sufficient for them to power their imagination into creative storytelling and visioning that far surpasses their later incarnation as stereotypes. Why does the magic die? How does it die? Is there no way for society as parents and educators to recapture and re-fire that imagination? Are we satisfied that college students graduate without the full complement of skills needed for success in the era of global competition, lacking in creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship? I think not. And the answer for me is experiential learning through practice in the real-world. I call it the Practicum Model.

Experiential learning is not new and has been with us since the dawning of the Academy. In the beginning, there were disciples and apprentices. Today, we have graduate students as cheap labor, internships, living-learning residence halls, travel and study abroad, capstone engineering courses designed to solve industrial problems, Dean-for-a-Day, Moot Corp, Alabama Launchpad, and an endless list activities outside the traditional classroom. But do they work? Do they satisfy the twin goals of firing up the young and achieving a positive societal benefit?

The accountability culture almost certainly has an answer. And they have the metrics to prove it! Their chart labeled “Gotcha” clearly shows an improvement in student retention rates for those in living-learning residence halls as opposed to those who reside in dormitories. Dormitories are so twentieth century! How can we doubt the obvious? Of course, we shouldn’t. Metrics, accountability, transparency, and all the other modern sociopolitical concepts are important as measures of how we are doing, but they are not enough. We must inform our activities with strategic principles.

Consider one of the latest educational fads: gaming. No one doubts its efficacy to students for absorbing a large quantity of data, developing critical thinking skills through problem solving, or enhancing teaming – although in an electronic social networked version. Gaming belies the notion that too many are slow learners. Properly used, it is a vehicle to overcome intellectual apathy. Tactically, it is a great instrument as are all the other modern forms of experiential learning. What’s missing is the strategic concept. While learning for the sake of learning is a worthy end unto itself handed down to us through the centuries and while it constitutes an essential strategy that encompasses experiential learning, is that enough for freshly minted students to be competitive in the global workforce? Again, I think not!

The classic definition of a student is one who attends school, one who makes a study of something, or one who observes. It’s the passive notion of students as receptacles of knowledge – the notion that dominated twentieth century thinking even as experiential learning began to emerge. A key factor in the slow breakdown of such thinking came in the latter part of the century as the “research experience” for students grew in importance along with Federal funding of basic research at universities. But why stop there? Why have a piecemeal approach to experiential learning? It’s time to change from a core definition of students that is passive – students as receptacles – to one that is active. I propose that we think of students as “engines” and replace “student receptacle” with “student engine.”

Believe it or not, we’ve already made an equivalent change in describing universities. In modern parlance, universities are “engines of innovation” or “engines of economic development.” Lest some purists be upset that these changes will destroy the “ivory tower,” I don’t see it that way. For me the ivory tower never existed anyway and is a figment of historical mythology, as is the purist notion of students as receptacles. But nonetheless, the essence of unfettered, independent scholarly activity and learning should be continued and is not threatened by our transformation of the student from receptacle to engine.

But let’s be specific. How do we execute such a change? I call it the Practicum Model. The dictionary defines “practicum” as “supervised practical application of a previously studied theory.” In other words, it’s experiential learning. We know how to conduct a practicum, although universities are a bit rusty in that regard. We know how to measure performance against standards. It’s not new. So, what is new? What’s new is that universities over the past decade have been rapidly expanding their service role into one of engagement. They are becoming “engines of innovation” in regional communities of innovation or innovation ecosystems. The infrastructure is falling into place. It’s now time to engage the students!

I have a number of suggestions for elements of a useful practicum model centered specifically on the commercialization of university research and the preparation of students to be competitive in the global workforce, not by treating them as receptacles, but as active partners.

Entrepreneurial programs for students. We have a large number of such programs and graduates, but where are these graduates? They seem to be missing in action. According to Angus Loten, there is “still no standard curriculum among top business schools for entrepreneurial studies.” Furthermore, “programs have a strong academic focus, rather than a how-to approach geared towards existing business owners.”  The practicum model would solve that problem.

Entrepreneurial programs for faculty. Faculty members typically have not had training in any aspect of a commercialization system. Universities need to remedy this situation. We need faculty involvement as well as student involvement.

Commercialization degree programs. Commercialization as an activity is a growing profession and should be so recognized – including the formation of degree programs. Such programs will positively impact the long-term operation of Offices of Technology Commercialization by providing certified professionals.

Workforce and STEM issues. What company would not want to hire students who have participated in the practicum model? What student would not want to enter a STEM career where practical training occurs early in the educational process? What student would not want exposure to the possibilities of using a STEM career to build an independent existence through a startup company? I believe the practicum model has potential to address the issue of the flight from STEM careers by American children.

Trans-disciplinary communication and teaming. The practicum model for commercialization requires cooperation and communication among teams of students and faculty from all disciplines of the university. It’s the ultimate driving force to achieve convergence of disciplines at the campus level to spur innovation and promote global competitiveness.

Alumnae as partners. There are many ways that alumnae can and should participate in the practicum model – their real-world experience being the least common denominator. Absent direct financial support, what better way for alumnae to support their alma mater than to serve as mentors, thought leaders, brain trusts, or advisory board members.

Industry investment. The innovation enterprise requires increased industry investment in bridging the gap between university and industry cultures, but universities must provide a mechanism and reason for them to do so. The practicum model provides that positive mechanism.

The era of the student as an engine is upon us. Let’s embrace that holistic concept and further enhance the power of America to be the world leader in innovation.

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