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UC Santa Cruz goes all out to engage students from non-STEM fields in entrepreneurship

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: November 22nd, 2017

Getting “creative” students from non-STEM disciplines involved with innovation and entrepreneurship always sounds like a great idea, but making it happen is another matter. Indeed, many TTOs will tell you that they regularly reach out to academic departments in the humanities, social sciences and the arts – but get little return on these efforts.

However, the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC) has developed a formula for cracking this problem that is not only gaining traction among non-traditional students, but is also uncovering significant benefits that students from disciplines outside the STEM arena can bring to the table in terms of engaging with community partners and potential customers.

Another plus of the approach: rather than leaving traditional STEM students out of the outreach equation, it creates a synergy between these students and the students from non-STEM fields. Further, while some aspects of the UC Santa Cruz approach are quite new, they build upon techniques the campus has been honing over many years, and they offer lessons for other universities that are looking to expand their innovation reach beyond engineering and scientific fields.

Sue Carter, a physics professor at UCSC, also heads the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development (CIED) at the school, and she has made it her mission to engage students from non-traditional areas in entrepreneurial pursuits. Why? Because, she finds that the traditional focus on engineering students has produced only a limited set of ideas and solutions.

“We want ideas that have not been traditionally thought of,” explains Carter. “One of the advantages of students from the humanities, the social sciences and the arts is they are generally connected to the broader public more so than a lot of STEM students are. Their backgrounds are more diverse, they have strong ties to the community, and they understand the customer and the values of that customer much better than a typical STEM student would.”

Such skills and relationships can be a gold mine for new thinking and new approaches to community needs. “The problem we have always had in innovation and entrepreneurship is we have all these students with technical skills, but they don’t know how to define the customer and value proposition, so we spend all our time teaching them that because they don’t have those skills,” observes Carter. “In our case, we don’t need to do that because we already have students out there who understand the customer and value proposition.… We just need to get those students engaged with the STEM students and we have basically solved one of the big problems in innovation and entrepreneurship.”

To accomplish this task, UCSC created a new center under the CIED called Idea Hub which involves faculty from the arts, social sciences and humanities as well as engineering, physical and biological sciences. The Idea Hub includes four labs, each focused on churning out innovations in specific areas. For instance, the Sustainability or S-lab is for students interested in pursuing solutions across a range of fields including green tech, biotech, food tech and agriculture; the OpenLab is for students focused on creative and cultural innovations; the Community Media and Mapping Lab is for students interested in developing new digital information tools for promoting social enterprises; and the VizLab is for students who want to use an array of visual technologies to develop new content or tools for interacting with the world.

A linchpin of the Idea Hub approach is that all projects have to include students from multiple disciplines. This interaction is facilitated through an open house where students from all the different academic departments meet and interact. “That is where we get people to pick their ideas and form their teams,” notes Carter. “We provide them with funding, and they get access to mentors, incubator spaces and training workshops. That is the process we have been using to be successful at launching interdisciplinary projects.”

A detailed article on UC Santa Cruz’s efforts appears in the November issue of Technology Transfer Tactics. To subscribe and access the full article, along with the entire 10-year archive of best practices and success strategies for TTOs, CLICK HERE.

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