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Professional Opinion

Six steps for colleges to inspire innovation

For students to be tomorrow’s visionaries, we must change how we teach them today
University Business, September 2017
Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University.
Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University.

While all leaders recognize the need for innovation and everyone wants an “innovative business model,” what does it mean?

How can academic leaders create a culture of innovation on university campuses? How can faculty most effectively convey their knowledge? And how can students learn to become the future innovators who will be crucial in the workplace?

At Bryant University, our Academic Innovation Center was an outgrowth of the realization that teaching innovative traits was vital.

We challenged ourselves with a series of questions: Can we teach all students to become innovators? What skills must they develop to make innovative advances in their 
chosen fields, regardless of their major? How can we assess the learning of these skills?

Creating an innovative culture

We adopted a six-step design thinking approach, first created by the design firm IDEO, that other campus leaders can use to create a culture focused on encouraging innovative teaching and creating innovators.

1. Cultivate observation skills.

Five years ago, with our Innovation and Design Experience for All (IDEA) program, we began introducing every freshman to design thinking through a one-credit, 56-hour immersion experience that challenges them to observe real-world problems and generate innovative solutions.

2. Ideate.

Ask faculty to envision—in a new world of technology—a fully-integrated pedagogy of experiential learning. Our prototype classroom, The Ideation Lab, became a space for adventurous faculty who had experimented in the IDEA program. The classroom itself wasn’t too futuristic, but its faculty were known for teaching innovatively.

3. Use rapid prototyping.

Take faculty recommendations and create a second prototype classroom that is more sophisticated in its use of wireless technology and AV capabilities—and also features moveable tables and chairs for easy reconfiguration of the space for team tasks. Focus on innovative teaching and dynamic group interactions.

4. Encourage feedback.

Throughout our pilot projects we received feedback from pioneering faculty who taught innovatively and were ready to imagine a building that would reflect what they had learned. We envisioned group-integrated, experiential learning in flipped classrooms and many other possibilities.

Ensure the classroom is designed for innovative teaching. Abundant writable glass, whiteboards and flexible furnishings complement smart technology, wireless projection, wireless monitors at collaboration stations, and docks for mobile devices and laptops.

The space enables faculty and students to effectively engage as they access data, create and share content, and view and critique solutions.

5. Iterate.

We have created many programs—such as “Faculty Without Borders” and the Sophomore International Experience—that advance innovation by challenging assumptions.

Our annual Research & Engagement Day provides an opportunity for faculty and students to share research projects, independent study, class activities and other learning experiences.

6. Implement.

Our goal is not only to teach innovatively but also to develop within all students an innovative leader’s traits and skills: curiosity and creativity, integrative thinking, collaboration, connectivity, perseverance and grit.

We aren’t just teaching them how to design a product or develop the next venture for an IPO; we are instilling innovation as a way of thinking, collaboration and taking risks.

We are now assessing accomplishment in this area, including whether students learn more academic content through innovative teaching than they do through conventional methods. Whatever fields our graduates choose, their future will demand innovation.

To prepare them for success as the future innovators and business leaders of tomorrow, we need to innovate what we teach and how we teach it.


Ronald K. Machtley is president of Bryant University.

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