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Tennessee Tech students named University Innovation Fellows by national program

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Published Thursday Apr 14, 2016

Three Tennessee Tech students have been named University Innovation Fellows by the National Center for Engineering Pathway to Innovation (Epicenter). These are the only students selected from Tennessee.

Nick Russell, a junior mechanical engineering major from Chattanooga, Jacqueline Schulz, a senior nursing major from Chattanooga, and Ashlin Wildun, a junior finance and economics major from Nashville, traveled to the program’s 2016 annual gathering in Silicon Valley.

“This conference was an incredible opportunity to meet other motivated and like minded students,” said Russell. “With the help of other fellows we will be able to accomplish our tasks here at Tennessee Tech.”

All 2016 fellows went to Google, Microsoft and Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design to participate in workshops and exercises to help improve and expand their entrepreneurial thinking.

The National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation (Epicenter) empowers student leaders to increase campus engagement with innovation, entrepreneurship, creativity and design thinking. This national program is funded by the National Science Foundation and directed by Standford University and VentureWell.

Only 155 students from 47 different colleges and universities across the United States were chosen as fellows for 2016. Overall, Epicenter has trained 607 students from 143 institutions since 2014. Six Tennessee Tech students have been fellows during that time: in 2014, Enis Cirak, senior chemical engineering major; in 2015, Jonathan Abbotoy, a senior finance and economics major and Abigail Collins, a sophomore biomolecular engineering major; and in 2016, Russell, Schulz and Wildun.

The Pathways to Innovation Program faculty at Tennessee Tech established the program at Tennessee Tech, which is currently the only such program in Tennessee.

“Tennessee Tech’s fellows come from very diverse educational backgrounds, but all have one goal: to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship in the educational experience,” said Vahid Motevalli, College of Engineering associate dean for research and innovation. “We believe both engineering and non-engineering students’ success is impacted by these applications.”

In order to become fellows, Russell, Schulz and Wildun, had to complete six weeks of online training and submit a proposal showing how increased innovation thinking can be improved on Tennessee Tech’s campus.

Russell’s vision is to “design thinking one’s college career.” He wants to help freshmen find what they are passionate about and help them think of innovative and entrepreneurial methods of planning their college experiences from day one through the freshman University Connections class.

Schulz, took part in “Clinical Immersion at Disciplinary Interfaces,” a pilot course for the university’s new quality enhancement program in fall 2015. In the course, nursing and chemical engineering students worked innovatively to improve problems in the healthcare field. She explained a one-semester course is not enough time to properly analyze and solve a problem innovatively and emphasized the need for a greater number of disciplines within these types of courses. Based on her own experience in the classroom, Schulz proposed an interdisciplinary, multi-semester program to teach innovative and entrepreneurial concepts. Students would then be tasked with finding practical applications.

“Being a part of such an organization has given me a unique experience to see how innovation and entrepreneurship can help in all fields, not just engineering or business,” said Schulz.

Wildun suggested having faculty lead pop-up classes, or brief learning session regarding a particular subject, for students of all disciplines and majors, with innovation and entrepreneurship topics chosen by the students based on results of surveys. The goal would be for the pop-ups to become student-led.

“It is important students know how they can be involved,” said Wildun. “If they take that first step of being involved they will be exposed to more opportunities than they ever thought possible.”

The fellows said they hope to see stronger student and faculty relationships and students pursuing their innovative ideas from the first day of their freshman year, along with a greater use of campus and regional resources to help the students and faculty bring their ambitions to life.

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