Lessons Learned: Innovation and Technology Forum in its Sophomore Year

Before she participated in NYU-Poly’s Innovation and Technology Forum — a required course for all first-year students — sophomore Jessica Aleksandrowicz says, “My only idea of an entrepreneur was someone who went door-to-door selling stuff, and now I’m introduced to this idea of someone who’s a risk-taker.” It’s one of the many lessons she learned in last year’s forum, which launched in 2009 and, like Aleksandrowicz, is now enjoying its second year at NYU-Poly.

The semester-long course debuted with fanfare. While other universities offer entrepreneurship programs to undergraduates, few, if any, require such classes for all incoming students the way that NYU-Poly does. Its creation aligned with the Institute’s desire to impress its i2e (invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship) philosophy upon those new to the NYU-Poly community. The course achieves that goal by bringing in guest speakers highly regarded in their fields, which intentionally range across disciplines. “Innovations never take place in an isolated field,” explains Professor David Lefer, who directs the forum and who, along with Harold Evans and Gail Buckland, authored They Made America, a book about American innovators. “They involve someone who is an expert in one field and who sees a practical application in a slightly different but related field.”

Featured lecturers in 2009, for example, included Juan Enriquez, CEO of Boston-based Biotechonomy, LLC, and Namrita Kapur, a microfinancier and environmental advocate. This year the list showcases Jennifer 8 Lee, a former journalist for the New York Times, as well as Frank Fernandez, former director of the nation’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Students gather to hear the biweekly talks before breaking into smaller discussion groups. They must also submit comments to a special Institute-run blog moderated by teaching assistants, or TAs, who are upper classmen, many of whom took the course the year before. At no point do they take tests or write term papers, a detour in the learning landscape for engineering-bound pupils expecting timed exams involving formulas or essay questions.

Classroom Innovation

But according to Professor Lefer, the detour may be a better way to reach today’s students, who are used to social networking sites — Facebook, for instance — where members regularly update other members with their musings or “status,” in the parlance of that particular site. He believes students’ familiarity with and regular use of such platforms allows him to influence them beyond the classroom. “I’m trying to incorporate the idea of innovation and their education into their everyday lives,” explains Professor Lefer.
Aleksandrowicz, now a TA for the course and a self-proclaimed “devout Facebooker,” understands Professor Lefer’s goals. “He wants us to participate both over the Internet and in person so that when we leave the classroom, it’s not over yet,” she says. “He wants you to think about it around the clock.”

“It” is easily communicated in the students’ blog posts, which repeatedly cite how they see i2e conveyed by the speakers who visit and how engineering innovations affect a range of disciplines. Discussing Lee’s lecture, Redwan Hussain wrote, “I learned that journalism [acts] as a catalyst for engineering. By publicizing ideas and technological breakthroughs, the media fuels the growth of the engineering field. Overall, the speech was insightful because it helped me link two different fields into one giant system.”

While the blog posts and classroom participation offer quantifiable proof of the forum’s impact on pupils’ lives — “I don’t have to work hard to get the students engaged,” marvels Aleksandrowicz. “They’re just sort of innately attuned to this idea of i2e.”

A better example might be the student round table in which Leticia Castro recently took part. “As we’re studying calculus, we start talking about job stability and the world that awaits us and globalization,” says Castro. “As freshmen, I didn’t think we’d be so adult-like to think so far ahead in our engineering futures.”

She pauses before beaming and concluding, “It’s exciting.”