The art of innovation

Portland State’s new Innovation Program, developed by the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, is finally off and running.

Portland State’s new Innovation Program, developed by the Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science, is finally off and running.

According to Program Director James McNames, there turned out to be a great deal of interest in the program during winter term’s pilot phase. He and his colleagues were quite pleased with the inventiveness of the student projects and the enthusiasm driving them.

The program’s review panel screened a total of 41 one-page proposals submitted by teams composed of one to at least a half-dozen students. Twenty-five of these proposals made the first cut and were invited to deliver a five-minute oral presentation before the review panel, followed by a brief Q-and-A session.

In the end, the review panel decided to fund 23 of these projects with $1,000 each, according to Danielle Cox, Maseeh College’s external relations manager.

The student projects vary widely in terms of technological complexity, according to Renjeng Su, dean of Maseeh College. The projects include a new device for pumping air into bicycle tires, electronic devices for stabilizing rockets, a new kind of water purification system and gadgets for police cars to aid highway patrolmen.

In many cases, it was easy for the review panel to decide that a project deserved funding.

According to McNames, one team is developing an aerial vehicle that will be able to navigate through a room autonomously—i.e. without a remote control—identify a concealed object, pick it up and lift it out of the room. The team needed a piece of equipment commercially priced at $1,000 that would enable the vehicle to detect how far away the walls are.

“[The aerial vehicle project] was very innovative, there was a lot of team energy, they were clearly dedicated to the project, and they clearly were going to be learning a lot from it,” McNames said. “So that was very easy for everyone to decide to support.”

One feature that distinguishes PSU’s Innovation Program from similar programs at other universities is that the program leaders seek to fund many projects at a low level rather than fund fewer projects at a high level. So instead of having one large pot of money that teams compete for, the money will be spread around so as to encourage as much student innovation as possible

The upshot, though, is that the program leaders end up reviewing a lot of proposals, and so the panel couldn’t afford to get bogged down in lengthy discussion about whether a proposed project is sufficiently innovative.

The review panel, therefore, needed to simplify its review process so as to increase its efficiency. It did this by having the panel members simply vote for which projects to invest in; if a project won a majority vote, it was funded.

“Because we had enough money to fund all the proposals that made it to the [review panel] stage, we could use a scheme of binary—thumbs up, thumbs down—and it worked beautifully,” McNames said.

Another unique feature of the program is its fairly unstructured design. Too much structure is not conducive to innovation, McNames said, and it can actually deter some highly creative students who would rather spend their time working on projects than filling out forms, attending classes and jumping through the administrative hoops that are normally imposed for, say, obtaining grants.

Although students are required to submit a budget, their spending parameters are somewhat liberal, as long as teams use their funding in ways the directly support their project, according to McNames. Teams must occasionally check in with McNames and other members of the innovation council to show that they’re making progress.

Su emphasized that the goal of the innovation program is to encourage students to learn what it means to practice innovation, even if that learning does not yield a finished project. What counts is the process, not the product.

“Student learning is our objective, not the project itself,” Su said

Although the program is still evolving, its future is coming into view, according to McNames. The program is set to hold another round of proposals and funding this term.

In addition, the program will organize what are tentatively titled “Innovation Fusion Talks” on April 14, according to Cox.

These talks will likely consist of leaders from Portland’s business community—including famous architects and designers from high-tech companies—delivering lectures on the importance of innovation and its purpose within the globalized economy, according to McNames.

“Portland State is in a unique position to serve as a central hub for innovation within the larger community,” McNames said. “[The innovation fusion talks] are generating quite a bit of interest, and people from industry especially are really

excited about this.”

This fall, the innovation teams will be required to present their projects, finished and unfinished, in a program showcase event.

“It is an exciting time for [Maseeh College],” Cox said. “I look  forward to the fall showcase and seeing the results of our student’s efforts.”?