Creating a culture of innovation

Portland State’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science  has launched a pilot program this term to encourage and cultivate innovation in students.

Portland State’s Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science  has launched a pilot program this term to encourage and cultivate innovation in students.

Renjeng Su, dean of MCECS, is spearheading the Innovation Program. Su has formed a five-member innovation council with James McNames, associate professor of electrical and computer science, who has been appointed as council director.

In addition, Su has gathered together a group of volunteers from the Portland business community who will serve as mentors to the students whose projects are chosen for the program.

“Many of the students within our programs have great, bright ideas, and they’re brilliant in many ways,”

McNames said. “But they get frustrated because they enroll in the engineering program to be creative…and it’s not until their senior year that they get an opportunity to create.”

McNames said that the Innovation Program—which will be funded entirely through private donations—is itself quite innovative.

The typical model in the American education system is to have the university professor impart knowledge to his students, according to McNames. But, he said, this is not the most effective way to learn in the discipline of


“It’s much more effective if students immediately apply the knowledge…and get feedback as to whether their ideas work,” he said. “In engineering, the best way to accomplish this is through projects.”

The goal of the program’s founding group, according to McNames, is to encourage participating students to try new things, even to encourage failure if it means that students are learning from their mistakes.

Students are not given rigid formulas or narrowly defined instruction for problem-solving. Instead, the program gives them the guidance and resources, such as money, tools and equipment, they need to plow through an open-ended creative process of their own devising, while using their project as a starting-point.

“The innovation council is trying not to impose barriers so as not to constrain creativity,” said council member Peter Dusicka, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering.

The institutional development of the Innovation Program through trial and error will, in a sense, mirror the creative development of students in the program: both will be forced to learn as they go.

“This is our first attempt at trying to cultivate more innovation within the college, and we’ll see where it goes,” McNames said.

Su strongly emphasizes that the program is not designed as an elitist club of student innovators. Rather, it is a way for PSU to nurture students’ growth as innovators by providing them with a kind of “playground” setting in which to safely work.

“The Innovation Program is not set up…to screen and reward,” Su said. “It’s set up for dialogue and education.”

The innovation council, which will also function as the innovation review panel, has not reached a consensus on what will qualify as “innovative.” In broad terms, “Innovation here is defined by either a new problem or a new solution,” Su said—that is, a keen observation of something lacking in society’s technology, or a novel idea for correcting a technological deficiency.

Whether it is a rarefied engineering problem or a clear way to optimize a product already on the market, the student’s project must show a “need consideration” and must represent a step toward addressing that need in society, according to Su.

Apart from these criteria—innovation and the potential for a positive societal impact—McNames has yet another criterion for selecting a project: the potential for student learning. He explained that a student project would be viewed favorably if it allowed the student to become a better innovator, even if the project is not likely to be completed as proposed.

McNames compares this to a venture capital firm investing in a high-risk business. However, the innovation council would be expecting a “high learning return” rather than a high financial return.

Su’s interest in forming the Innovation Program arose in part from the increasing competition American engineering students currently face in the global marketplace. Engineers from around the world, equipped with the same skills taught in the U.S., are adding to the worldwide workforce in massive numbers. That this specialized labor can be bought more cheaply elsewhere—from, say, China or India—by international corporations puts American engineers at a formidable disadvantage, according to Su.  

The Innovation Program, therefore, seeks to set a trend in U.S. education that capitalizes on what sets American students apart from their foreign counterparts.

“The culture here is more freedom-driven, more individualistic and more easily challenges whatever the status quo is,” Su said. “How do you take advantage of the culture as an asset?”

More specifically, the program seeks to channel the classically American sense of entrepreneurship, which Su views as a unique strength in American culture, a sort of native-born competitive edge.

Su said that the program is only an extracurricular activity this year. His goal in the short-term is to find a way of granting credit hours to participating students. In the long-term, Su will look to insert the program into PSU’s official curriculum.

“I see this program as something that students will want to come to PSU to get involved in and experience,” Dusicka said. “Something that our alumni look back on and recognize as a ‘game changer’ in their lives and careers.” 

Students who wish to participate in the program must have taken at least one engineering course in their college career.

In addition, they need to submit a one-page project proposal by this Friday, Jan. 21, and then deliver a five-minute presentation before the innovation review panel on Jan. 27. Group submissions are especially encouraged, as long as at least one member of the group has taken an engineering course.?