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University-Industry Engagement Advisor
University-Industry Engagement Advisor
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UGA launches Student Industry Fellows Program to enhance talent pipeline

This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of University-Industry Engagement Advisor. Click here to subscribe.

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The University of Georgia has just launched its Student Industry Fellows Program (SIFP), an initiative designed to “cultivate innovation competencies” among undergrads and graduate students, enhance the school’s talent pipeline and workforce readiness, and generate partnerships with industry. The program, supported by the Delta Air Lines Foundation, uses a funnel that leads to the fellowship through two main components: The Innovation Catalyst & Design course, followed by the Industry Project Management program, in which the students work on projects addressing needs identified by industry partners in concert with those companies.

SIFP will be housed in the Innovation Hub, a renovated building that will also host UGA start-up venture efforts and experiential learning activities, as well as serve as the university’s “front door” for industry engagement. The Hub, supported by a $5 million commitment from Delta, is the next stage of UGA’s Innovation District initiative, designed to enhance its economic impact through entrepreneurship, research commercialization and industry and community partnerships.

“The Innovation District has multiple phases,” explains Crystal Leach, director of industry collaborations. “The first is [focused] on student entrepreneurship. Second [come] faculty entrepreneurship and industry engagement. The Hub will have open, flexible space, classes will be held there, there will be opportunities for companies to work there.” The building will also house faculty start-ups and maker space, and it will host SIFP classes and project meetings. “This is a cornerstone project,” she says.

The genesis of the fellowship was the strong trend among industry partners toward focusing on their need for well-prepared employees. “When we put our programs together, we thought about the ways in which industry wanted to connect with us, and one, of course, was talent,” says Leach. “When you looked at various capstone or design projects, industry partners could connect with them through mostly discipline-specific or program-specific projects. We wanted to provide opportunities for industry with interdisciplinary team engagement. Also, it would be great to have an opportunity for students to engage with companies and overall build skillsets to make them more attractive long-term, and to work on a team and with companies. Those were things we really did not have a dedicated program for.”

“I come from the corporate sector [and] I did a lot in the workforce readiness space,” shares Andrew H. Potter, director of university experiential and an instructor in the initial course. “This program is practice- and skill-based. There are great programs here where faculty can teach you to apply your competency and skill-based perspective to face real-world problems.”

Learning skills

The one-semester Innovation Catalyst & Design course is open to undergraduate and graduate students in any discipline. It provides students with foundational training in the theory and practice of innovation, including competencies such as design thinking, project management, analytics, and business strategies. Intended to help create a cross-disciplinary pipeline of students, it seems to definitely have done that.

The first course, which was just launched, includes students from engineering, history, business, and art majors. Potter says he was focused from the start on recruiting a diverse group to ensure the class represented a cross-disciplinary team. Only in that way, he points out, could he address his primary mission: “How to take a very talented, gifted student with an academic background and equip him or her with skills.”

Ultimately the students who complete the course will become participants in the Industry Fellows program. “Our goal was 15 in the first course, and we have 17. We’ll do another in the spring, [and] we’ll have a pool of ideally close to 50 students who’ve completed [the first course], and that would be the first cohort to mine for fellows projects in the fall.”

The cross-disciplinary teams will use the skills they learn to work on real-world design problems identified by industry partners. Potter will work with co-instructors including faculty from the Terry Business College, the Lamar Dodd School of Art, and the Grady School of Journalism. “The other big thing is that we’ll bring in a lot of practitioners as guest presenters,” he says. “They’ll discuss what really goes on in the role of work, what skills they look for, and how they recruit talent. For example, most students are unaware that many employers use bots.”

With most of the companies he’s talked to, he adds, the “win” is not so much the project, “but they are very much attracted to that fact that we’re helping to skill up their future front-line workforce and executives. They want access to that talent.”

Industry input, he continues, was essential from the start — even in the design of the course. “I went out and tested the model through various employers — what did they think; what were the top skills they were looking for?” he recalls. “I researched reports from around the world to determine industry and economic trends as well as employment gaps for employers. I also pitched employers on what they needed in design-delivery. I wanted to figure out how to truly make this a course aligned with industry.”

The Fellows

According to a UGA statement, up to 25 student applicants will be selected annually to enter the SIFP program, which will require one semester of training/preparatory coursework and one or more semesters of Innovation District service and team-based project work. They will:

  • Lead industry project teams (1-2 per semester) and complete projects on time and to a high degree of quality/accuracy.
  • Serve as Innovation District ambassadors, staffing programs and events, hosting speakers or visitors as needed, and periodically planning programs or events which are intended to enhance the innovation ecosystem at UGA.

To select the Fellows from those who take the initial course, “we will have three project tests — design challenges,” says Potter. “This follows the targeted training and support of the ‘foundations’ course, where they are equipped with insight into the language and skills of work. Then come the three separate design challenges. As they complete each goal, they get stronger.”

The students will be assigned “the type of projects industry wants to fulfill, from for-profit companies, not-for-profit companies, and government,” says Potter. However, he adds, as time goes on, they will become more thematic around areas such as social entrepreneurship or fintech, he notes.

In addition, Potter continues, a third-party “skill survey” is used to measure the students across eight skill components and provide them with skill-based feedback. “Then, there is some input from my own perspective, too,” says Potter, who will make recommendations based on his personal assessment.

When the students become Fellows, in addition to serving on project teams, they will represent the Innovation District on campus, he adds. “They will introduce courses like this, and serve as alumni of this program,” he explains. “For example, they may come to employer breakfasts and talk about it; a lot of it will involve getting the word out to different types of stakeholders.”

Made for industry

One of the benefits of the SIFP to industry, says Leach, is that they’re getting exactly what they asked for. “We deal with companies all the time who love to work with student project teams, but one of the first questions they ask is, ‘Are your teams interdisciplinary?’” she says. “Previously we had not really been able to provide that broad, disciplinary team they’re looking for. Sometimes, an accreditation program, like an engineering capstone, which is part of the college’s program, may not be able to be as flexible. This is really built to think about what those industry partners are looking for — an interdisciplinary, entrepreneurial team.”

For the students, she continues, the program “does not just plop them into going to work with an industry partner. We spend a whole semester letting them know what they need to be successful.”

Will the program lead to building and strengthening industry partnerships? “It will absolutely do both,” she asserts. “I can tell you that many industry partners who work with us in other ways are very excited. They like the idea of the interdisciplinary nature, and of the Innovation Hub being a site that safely allows them to physically engage with students (there is plenty of space for social distancing). It’s also set up for strong virtual connections. All of this makes it easier for them and helps strengthen the relationship.”

It also presents a great opportunity for new partnerships, says Leach. “It’s about talent for these companies — looking for new gateways for engaging talent,” she asserts. “This is an interesting new program; there will be really high-level cohorts, and companies will be excited.”

“UGA is a land grant institution,” adds Potter. “We have to be sure our work has an impact on the state, and programs like this are a great way to connect not just talent, learning, and research, but people — students and faculty. It’s an extremely great way to vertically build a two-way pipeline — moving research off campus to real world communities and learning a lot from not-for-profit companies and government.”

What lessons has he learned about how a university should approach building such a program? “Finding a funding partner pretty early on in the process has definitely solved a lot of problems for us,” he notes, referring to Delta. Also critical are getting faculty involved, securing classroom space, creating web and other marketing content, and getting the word out broadly.

“We’ve had really broad support across campus,” Potter says, which has been eased somewhat given the program’s ties to the high-priority build-out of the Innovation District. “One thing we as a team did well in the first six months was build that on-campus support; it just makes the path smoother.”

As for potential pitfalls, Potter says he’s still learning a lot, but stressing the diverse talent involved will continue to be critical. “We continue to make sure we tell the story that we’re a truly multi-disciplined program,” he declares.

Contact Leach at 706-542-2289 or csleach@uga.edu; contact Potter at 706-542-7926 or andrew.potter@uga.edu.


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