The National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter) has awarded University of Maryland Master of Architecture candidate Valerie Sherry a 2013 University Innovation Fellowship. She is one of 21 students from universities nation-wide accepted to the program this year, and the first University of Maryland student ever to participate. The University Innovation Fellowship is part of a national effort to arm students with the knowledge and expertise to create, innovate and compete in a global economy. Working closely with fellowship colleagues and peers on campus, fellows mobilize their student body and create resources that foster innovation, entrepreneurship and cutting-edge creativity. The program is funded in partnership with Stanford University and the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA).
“We are thrilled to have Valerie participating in such a ground-breaking program,” said David Cronrath, Dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “She is an exceptionally talented and creative thinker who will bring some great ideas to the table.”
In an official statement released Tuesday, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy praised the program for “empower(ing) student leaders to survey entrepreneurship programs at their own schools, check out what’s going on at other schools, and organize fellow students around the most compelling and successful models.”
The core mission of the University Innovation Fellowship is to catalyze innovation and entrepreneurship within the student community by pinpointing campus needs, identifying gaps and uncovering opportunities. Fellows undergo a deep dive analysis of their campus ecosystem to determine student needs and investigate how to make existing resources more accessible. In previous years, fellows have created events, organized competitions, hosted speakers and collaborated on new classes. Among the strategies Sherry outlined during fellowship training is a new initiative called the Maryland Design Impact Lab (mDIL), a dynamic environment for students across campus to collaborate, generate and test innovative concepts and ideas. It aims to be a venue not just for idea collision but implementation and impact, nurturing action with social significance. Specifically designed to harness the collective ingenuity of Maryland’s student body, mDIL will fold in disciplines currently underserved in innovation activities, such as the arts and humanities.
“UMD has incredible momentum for innovation and entrepreneurship through a variety of initiatives, particularly those STEM-related,” explains Sherry. “But one thing I found in my research is there isn’t as much connection between disciplines like the arts, humanities and design. That is where I see mDIL filling that gap.”
The concept behind mDIL stresses the importance of bringing a variety of design thinkers to the table—architecture, engineering, technology, the arts and business—at both undergraduate and graduate levels. Related activities, such as weekend workshops, coined “Design Tent,” will promote freestyle hacking and idea building, where students can quickly give form to ideas in a supportive, collaborative environment. Students have already started to hold planning meetings and design sessions as the program builds momentum, with a big university launch planned for January.
“With mDIL, we want to provide students with this great creative outlet, but also an outlet where different disciplines can create positive impact together,” says Sherry. “Working in a venue where you can share your expertise and learn from others is where ideas graduate to the next level. It’s a way to shake things up a bit.”
Aside from individual campus work, the fellows are also undertaking a groundbreaking wiki, which outlines each of the participating universities current initiatives and recommended strategies. This open-sourced platform is geared to evolve as other students join the movement, using crowd-sourced information for sharing best practices and roadmaps for creating programs that have proven to engage the student body and bring about successful ventures.
“With these models, students and university program leaders nationwide can evaluate whether the programs are a good fit to bring to their campus, or whether they can cobble ideas from multiple initiatives to provide a hybrid resource that better serves their university’s needs,” explains Sherry.
A unique aspect of the fellowship is the cross- collaboration within the program, creating a supportive environment where fellows can compare notes and investigate what is working and what is not on other campuses. Students within the fellowship are primarily in engineering, but also come from biotechnology, business and humanities backgrounds. Throughout the academic year, the fellows will continue to meet weekly via online forums such as Webex to brainstorm, strategize and collaborate. The fellows will convene in San Jose next March to attend sessions on technology entrepreneurship and take part in a design thinking workshop at Google.
“Valerie is a strong advocate who has a clear understanding of design’s fundamental place in the ethos of innovation,” says Michael A. Ambrose, Assistant Director of the Architecture Program and Clinical Professor. “To have a young, strong, female designer projecting the vision for what design can be and where it fits into innovation is going to change a lot of people’s perspectives of what architecture is and what it can be.”