online education: resources for innovation and entrepreneurship educators

online education

We updated this article with ways to incorporate experiential learning into online education. The article was first published on August 25, 2020.

Innovation and entrepreneurship (I&E) faculty know that the key to solving complex challenges requires creativity and adaptability. The COVID-19 pandemic has put those qualities to the test. Educators face significant challenges in transforming their in-person labs, design courses, and events to virtual experiences. In response to these challenges, we’ve compiled key learnings and best practices from educators in our community who have adjusted to the demands of online education. For a complete collection of resources, visit our Faculty Online Learning Series

rethink basic teaching principles for online education 

Faculty have become aware that an online education environment is very different from an in-person classroom experience. Many are learning new teaching principles as they navigate the process. Denise DeLuca, director of the Sustainable Design Program at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, is familiar with adjusting teaching principles for a virtual experience. She has taught in the fully online graduate program for the past ten years. 

Based on her experience, she shared some basic precepts to creating a stimulating remote learning experience that can be applied broadly to many courses making the changeover. For instance, she recommends instructors be “less the sage on the stage, and more the guide on the side”. That includes giving short lectures instead of long synchronous sessions. 

For educators concerned about the lack of opportunities for teamwork, she recommends assigning meaningful projects focused on team-based learning. Students can give feedback on each other’s work by using commenting boards. DeLuca also reminds us of a positive aspect of online education: leverage the connecting power of the internet to bring the world into your virtual space. Instructors can facilitate online field trips, host guest speakers, and introduce students to others in their network.

For more lessons learned, watch DeLuca’s webinar, Designing an Engaging Online Learning Experience

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invite industry experts to the online classroom

Being separated from crucial lab equipment due to her university’s closure posed a significant problem for University of Florida professor and recent VentureWell faculty grantee Nancy Ruzycki, whose course topic was the emerging field of bioprinting. In her course, she challenged students to create a 3D-printed design using biomaterials and bio-inks. With the design course moved to an online platform, her students could no longer access the bioprinting lab.

Ruzycki instead brought the field of bioprinting to them by setting up Zoom conference calls with leaders at some of the country’s largest biomaterials startups. She found these experts by tapping into her university’s innovation hubs and alumni contacts. Among the presenters were entrepreneurs from CELLINK, a leading designer of bio-inks and bioprinters, and from BiogelX, which makes hydrogel-based products, as well as chemists, process engineers, mechanical engineers, materials engineers, and biophysicists.

Normally, she didn’t have access to local experts on the topic. Moving the course online presented an opportunity to bring in expertise remotely. That allowed students to see the global nature of the field and the different contributors to these products. Ruzycki plans to continue using virtual meet-and-greets once in-person classes resume again.

For more tools and tips on this topic, watch the webinar, Teaching Design and Innovation Online.

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focus on objectives and foster empathy and support

As design and innovation faculty were rushed to move their courses online in response to the pandemic, there was an emphasis on finding tools to emulate the classroom experience virtually. In our webinar, Teaching Design and Innovation Online, VentureWell Faculty Grants recipients, Raja Schaar from Drexel University and Nathaniel Stern from University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, shared the need to go beyond tools. They recommend designing classes from the ground up by focusing on objectives, as well as ensuring you emotionally support students during these challenging times.

Instead of trying to duplicate the classroom experience, Schaar and Stern suggest faculty play to the strengths and challenges of learning online. This includes providing short pre-recorded lectures, linking to assignments on websites and learning platforms, and forming breakout groups for teamwork and group activities

While online education can bring students and faculty together on a screen, that’s a far cry from the human interactions that are the foundation of the classroom. To combat the disconnectedness students may experience, Shaar and Stern offer practices designed to make students feel more comfortable and included. Schaar’s synchronous check-in time is as much about social/emotional support as it is about helping students complete their projects. Nathaniel Stern uses “stokes”— or icebreakers—to create energy in the virtual class and to give students an opportunity to feel seen and heard. 

By tapping into the social/emotional needs of their classes, Schaar and Stern have been able to get a view into the specific challenges students are encountering—and are better able to address these issues. For instance, to accommodate disparities in students’ internet connectivity, Schaar is flexible about when and how students engage with her and the class and submit their work. She also conducts a tech survey to find out what hardware her students are using, and intends to build in questions about familiarity with different design tools.

For more on this topic, watch the full webinar, Teaching Design and Innovation Online.

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bring the classroom to students through at-home kits and tools

STEM innovation requires hands-on experimentation, and university labs and research facilities are often the best place for students to brainstorm ideas and tinker with prototypes. Though the pandemic has meant many students are learning from home, there are many ways to incorporate experiential learning into virtual classrooms. One method is to bring the classroom—or components of it—right to students at home. For example, at the University of California, Irvine, Christine King sent low-cost 3D printers directly to her Biomedical Engineering students at home to help in device development, and utilized virtual simulation programs to enable students to engage in proof of concept validation testing.

In her Entrepreneurial Mindset course, Annette Kendall of the University of Missouri looked to digital programs to translate experiential lessons into at-home activities, like online mystery escape rooms. She also incorporated electronic learning kits and products from Adafruit into her curriculum. “The students used discussion boards to help those who were having trouble getting their gadgets to work. It was a great way for the non-tech students to develop some confidence in this area.” she shared.

Laquita Blockson at Agnes Scott College planned a similar alternative for the students in the Human-centered Design and Implementation course she team-teaches with her colleague, Dr. Carlee Bishop. “We will provide each student a prototyping kit; this enables us to offer our students a hands-on polytechnic learning activity while simultaneously accounting for COVID-19-related restrictions that limit students’ access to campus and/or maker-spaces.” she explained.

Professors can still provide opportunities for hands-on learning, despite the pandemic. Furnishing students with the tools to replicate a lab-like environment wherever they are can help students engage more deeply with design concepts and catalyze stronger collaboration among their peers. By asking students to think outside the box about how—and where—they can learn and create, professors can impart a vital lesson for STEM entrepreneurs to look beyond traditional lab-spaces for solutions.

virtualizing expos and competitions

Design and innovation programs aren’t just about instruction. Many incorporate design competitions, fairs, and expos where student teams present the projects they have been working on for their classes and culminating year-long capstone courses. Some campuses took the brave step of transitioning their events and competitions online. In our webinar, Hosting Capstone Fairs, Competitions, and Student Showcases Online, several faculty grantees that took the virtual plunge shared lessons learned from pivoting large-scale student showcases and competitions to an online format.

Daniel Riffell from the University of Colorado Boulder’s Mechanical Engineering Department transformed the annual Engineering Projects Expo into the virtual Mechanical Engineering Projects Showcase. The showcase—a website that exhibits the teams’ projects, videos, and white papers—allowed students to display and celebrate their hard work. It also served as a portfolio for students to send to potential employers. Industry partners and alumni were able to review the white papers, which allowed students the opportunity to network with their reviewers. 

Magda Lagoudas of the Texas A&M University Engineering Department helped convert her department’s capstone engineering competition to a virtual event. Students, faculty, and industry partners all benefitted. Students posted videos and resumes to their site; faculty continued to encourage and engage with the students; and industry gauged their return on investment in the students’ projects.

Rodney Boehm, Director of Engineering and Entrepreneurship and Associate Professor at Texas A&M University, helped virtualize the worldwide innovation challenge Invent for the Planet, a live global event where student engineering teams compete to find solutions to engineering problems posed by industries and government agencies. Boehm noted that much of the competition had already been online since teams across the globe were involved and that this virtual teamwork mimicked the actual professional engineering process. On individual campuses, however, students could no longer meet together to collaborate and create prototypes. Instead, they worked together remotely by using Microsoft Teams to speak, write, and share files with each other. Because the student teams also could not meet with their mentors in person, accountability was ensured by having each team hold three live, online briefings with their mentors during the course of the weekend-long event. Boehm said the most important thing at the project’s inception was to have the will to make it work virtually. During the event he learned that it was the small details that became the most problematic and that it was valuable to have a facilitator, a marketing person, and an IT person working on the project with him to help all of the processes integrate properly.

Hao Pho and Holly Butler of the UMass Lowell Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program moved their Idea Challenge online via YouTube. In their preliminary round, dozens of student teams sent video pitches of their projects. Once finalists were chosen, the virtual event became a live pitch contest. Butler, as MC and administrator of the event, kept it lively by initiating audience clapping and showing the trophies the awardees would physically receive at a later date. She noted that in their former on-site event, only judges were able to ask the contestants questions. In the online event, judges, mentors, students, and audience members were able to comment and ask the teams questions, which was a boon to the event.

Watch the moderated webinar, Hosting Capstone Fairs, Competitions, and Student Showcases Online.

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keep online events simple

Colleges and universities were not the only institutions to transition their events online. We were forced to pivot our annual OPEN conference into a virtualized, live event—in just two weeks. That included redesigning a schedule and creating an online pitch competition featuring ten student teams and nearly 500 voters. We learned some valuable lessons that can be applied to academic online events that are held synchronously. 

For example, we quickly identified the obstacles and challenges of navigating a virtual platform to host a virtualized conference, which allowed us to anticipate and work within its strictures. Given it was our first online event, we kept it simple. We selected one or two easy-to-use tools to achieve our goals. We didn’t spend too much time learning the technology; in our experience, it was relatively intuitive. We focused more on the process and ironing out the facilitator and end user experience.

For more tips, watch the webinar, Presenting a Virtualized Event, and read our article on what we learned from producing our first virtualized conference.

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online education: key takeaways

Online education during the pandemic requires innovative redesigns of teaching practices, coursework, and event management. Faculty can adapt to the new learning environment by paring their courses down to the essential objectives, and restructuring lesson plans that do require in-person laboratory and clinic work. Faculty can also emotionally support their students through activities and practices that help students adjust to the disconnected experience of remote learning. Traditional culminating experiences like capstone design competitions and student showcases don’t have to be abandoned during the pandemic. Moving these events online provides benefits like greater accessibility and lasting portfolios for students to share with potential employers. The pivot to online education is a tremendous change for educational institutions that value innovation but also depend on consistency and tradition. To thrive in this new educational environment, faculty can adopt a forward-thinking perspective to continue engaging and inspiring tomorrow’s innovator-entrepreneurs. 

VentureWell Course and Program Grants provide up to $30,000 to faculty or staff with innovative ideas to help students hone the skills needed to create novel STEM-based inventions and bring their ideas to market.

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