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Empowering Students to Redesign The University Experience

Petra Dierkes-Thrun, coordinator of the Year of Learning initiative, opens the program, "Students [re]Designing Higher Education Across the U.S."

The Year of Learning teams with Stanford’s University Innovation Fellows program to explore how students are changing the shape of higher education

Most professional educators have ideas about how they’d like to reinvent higher education. But what if students themselves could change the university experience – how would they do things differently? 

That question lay behind a Stanford Year of Learning event held last week at Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, sponsored by the university’s Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning and featuring leaders from the Stanford-based University Innovation Fellows (UIF) program, a scheme that aims to empower undergraduates from across the United States to create opportunities for their peers to “develop an entrepreneurial mindset and creative confidence.” 

As more than a dozen University Innovation Fellows demonstrated in both presentations and poster sessions during the lunchtime gathering, they’re directing much of their effort towards changing the climate, curriculum, and even the facilities of their home campuses to help their universities better serve future learners. 

Ready for tomorrow’s challenges

Today’s students will join a complex world upon graduation and face numerous problems that humanity hasn’t faced before, noted UIF program co-leader Leticia Britos Cavagnaro in introducing the speakers. “What are the skills students need to solve complex problems?” she asked, suggesting that the answers lay in careful observation, asking good questions, making conceptual connections, experimenting with solutions, and working with a diverse network of collaborators.  

Those skills are also at the heart of the UIF program, Britos Cavanaro explained, and are being deployed by fellows to bring positive to change to their university campuses so that others might graduate with a similar skill set. Their work, she added, is showing that “Students have the power to change education in ways that we haven’t seen before.” 

For Utah Valley University technology management major Tanner Wheadon, that meant pushing for an innovation hub on his campus but being told there was no physical space available. So he created a mobile rack from which he has been teaching design thinking classes, including to his university’s president and other senior administrators who are now actively supporting his search for a permanent innovation space. 

At the University of the Virgin Islands, senior Daricia Wilkinson has been successfully expanding opportunities for entrepreneurial education on her campus and advocating for project-based classes to be made available for all majors. “Our events started to create a buzz on campus as students began to build pride in their problem solving abilities,” she recalled. 

Kettering University senior Alan Xia, meanwhile, has been working to open workshop and lab facilities on his campus for students to work creatively outside of regular class time.  The resulting Open Lab Days program, for which Xia secured foundation support, have been hugely popular. 

Innovation in multiple dimensions

After each talk, the fellows posed a question (“How might we create greater access to labs across higher education?” for example) that audience members were invited to discuss and then share their responses to. Commenters, including students from nearby Palo Alto High School, especially appreciated seeing undergraduates working for change even when they will graduate in just a few years, and noted the need for innovations that can help support low income and minority students as they progress through college.

Nadia Gathers, a UIF alumna and now director of communications for Code2040.org, a non-profit that works to achieve racial equity in technology, spoke to the latter point in the second set of presentations. Gathers described her own efforts to fit in at different institutions both before and during her undergraduate career and how that has prompted her ongoing efforts to help better “sculpt the language and space in which we build inclusive movements.”

University of Virginia junior Ben Mathews noted that STEM classes on his campus were perceived as intimidating to a majority of freshmen, even those who had intended to major in STEM subjects. After brainstorming with friends, he co-created a campus program that gets freshman thinking about science and math in the context of more relatable, real world problems, an effort that took him to the White House Science Fair to present a national version of their idea. 

Former University of Oklahoma UI Fellow and current Microsoft employee, Ryan Phillips spoke about working with a friend outside of school to create an iPhone app. “It helped me identify what my passion was,” he said. It also inspired him to develop and support maker spaces at both his university and at Microsoft.  

After a final round of comments that raised the issue of inclusion across geographies and ages and explored the value in building and supporting flexible spaces of many kinds, attendees were invited to visit with other UI Fellows at stations around the D. School atrium. Their projects included efforts to shift mindsets on a liberal arts campus, to encourage multidisciplinary studies, and to create new engineering classes centered on “grand challenge” problems. 

Many were impacting both the culture and physical space of their educational institutions. 

James Madison University undergraduate and UI Fellow Timothy Moore, for example, shared details of the workshop space he created for campus community members to offer short “pop-up” classes – and which multiple faculty have already used to test out new ideas for future classes. 

And Robin Bonatesta, a fashion merchandising and computer science major at Kent State University, explained how she used her fellowship year to organize multiple fashion-related hackathons and get a co-working space built in the campus library that the students called “The Fridge.” 

“It’s used by students to work on their design projects,” Bonatesta reported. “We were given the space for just two weeks, but the university has already let it stay up for over a year.”