Sparking the next generation of world-class engineering innovation

Over the summer, we visited Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, a bucolic campus surrounded by the splendid isolation of the Adirondack Mountains and blue necklace of lakes and rivers.

From its beginning, Clarkson had a highly focused vision for building the kind of school that blended a technology rich curriculum with a diverse liberal arts education to meet real world needs. Originally founded in 1896 as the Thomas S. Clarkson Memorial School of Technology, the school went on to attain College status in 1913 with the new name, Clarkson Memorial College of Technology; and, in 1984, achieved University status.

Clarkson was named for successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, Thomas R Clarkson III who left, among other legacies, the University’s enduring motto, “A Workman That Needeth Not to be Ashamed”.  These few simple words sparked Clarkson’s unique qualities of ingenuity and pragmatism.

Over the last 15 years, Clarkson President Tony Collins has taken Clarkson from a regional engineering school to a nationally ranked research University – a leader in technological education and sustainable economic development.

On campus, we learned about Clarkson’s venerable heritage, special mission and unique approach to engineering, science, technology and, importantly, an ingenious, yet practical vision for reengineering traditional engineering education.  What we learned was remarkable.

Clarkson appears to have reinvented engineering education through a special cluster of campus-wide initiatives best expressed as “ClarksonIgnite”.  More than just a concept, Clarkson has created a real and virtual Innovation Hub connecting students to faculty, staff, alumni and community leaders to gain critical hands-on creative experience. ClarksonIgnite was described to us as:

…a place where, if you dream it, you can build it. And once you build it, you can engage with experts and collaborate with fellow makers interested in solving real-world problems through innovative designs.

Uniquely, ClarksonIgnite has the courage to defy engineering convention — indeed, encourage disruptive thinking, and face the inevitability of change. Impressively, ClarksonIgnite has deconstructed traditional academic silos and connected diverse disciplines, professions and cultures.

In so many ways, Clarkson Ignite offers an organizational venue for the recent explosion of new product ideas, engineering breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.

Clarkson University President Tony Collins put it nicely this way:

Without change, there is no technical innovation or breakthrough discoveries that advance human knowledge, no drive to make social and cultural improvements…

But change inevitably brings challenges as well…

Clarkson is an institution that thrives on change; a responsiveness to the world and an openness to new ideas and approaches is what defines our University.

Although some Clarkson students have no desire to create their own startups upon graduation, they will still need to “bring to the table” a multidisciplinary, entrepreneurial mindset and skill sets transferable to future employment. By engaging in experiential engineering entrepreneurship programs, Clarkson students come to understand complex decision-making, optimization, risk mitigation, and the reallocation of resources to solve multi-faceted problems in an increasingly competitive, global engineering environment.

By almost every measure, Clarkson ranks highly in value-added outcomes of its graduates –

i.e., career placement advancements, range of compensation as well as graduate and professional school admission and completion rates. Based on a recent survey by PayScale, Clarkson ranks nationally among the top 25 colleges with the highest-paid graduates.

As part of the President’s challenge, student teams learned IBM design thinking methodologies to improve life and learning on campus. Topics varied from robotics and admissions tours to food delivery robots and snow and ice management. Proposals were peer-reviewed by internal and external experts and an internal selection committee who chose thirteen teams for a final “Shark Tank” style competition. These multidisciplinary, interprofessional teams succeeded in inventing practical solutions to complex real world engineering problems and challenges.

With a lot of hard work, creative problem-solving and a few pizzas, students and faculty created space outfitted with white boards, flexible furniture, 3-D printing and other prototyping equipment. Down the road, an Emerson Foundation grant will create planned maker-space within the Innovation Hub to allow students access to leading-edge technology tools for rapid prototyping and production of new products.

At the end of the day, what Tony Collins and his Clarkson colleagues have achieved defies conventional engineering silos; incentivizes disruptive behavior; connects diverse academic disciplines and licensed professions; and creates a powerful hub for stimulating innovation.

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Consolidating Colleges and Merging Universities. (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017). Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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