Contributed by Edmond Dougherty. This article originally appeared in KEEN Annual Report, 2019-2020. Reprinted with permission.
At Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), a core team is working on a program to positively impact local and global communities while teaching students entrepreneurial mindset (EM). With assistance from KEEN, VentureWell, and others, faculty members Sarah Brownell, Marcos Esterman, Ann Howard, and Rob Stevens are revising and developing courses that allow students to solve community-identified issues.
Brownell explains the synergy: “Community partners bring local context, rich life experiences, and an organization of motivated people committed to improving community well-being. RIT students bring fresh perspectives, an understanding of emerging technologies, methods, and ideas, and access to university resources for research and design. Doing authentic, engaged projects takes a committed, open-minded, multidisciplinary team ready to explore motivations and values and cultivate trusting relationships.”
Two courses impacted include Sustainable Communities and Engineering and the Developing World.
Howard describes the EM component: “We want to help students understand that expertise comes in a variety of ways. Students appreciate people’s lived experiences, particularly the social-cultural context within which solutions have to be fashioned, which is important to success and is an area of learning often missed in technical education.”
At the heart of both courses are contemporary community challenges. Students team with community representatives to identify opportunities and select the ones with the most potential for positive impact. With community members, the teams then conduct research to understand the challenges through the lens of technology, sustainability, and culture.
“The key to success is long-term partnerships,” Howard explains. “These are not one-off projects where we drop students into the community and pull them out again. We want to create a real sense of trust. By having those long-term relationships, we learn more about where the community partners want us to apply our expertise. Often the outcomes are iterative; some projects can last several semesters.”
RIT is a mandatory co-op school.
Esterman states, “Community projects work well as co-op experiences. Students in the field identify gaps and new challenges, and these cycle into projects for the following year. We're setting up a virtuous cycle where projects are not only learning experiences but continue to have meaningful impact.”
Past iterative projects include converting agricultural waste into products, electrification in rural areas, custom irrigation systems for community gardens, and the development of production tools such as dryers and presses.
Sustainable Communities students conduct interviews with project stakeholders.
Engineering and Developing World students setting up for gathering feedback from interactive prototypes at the International Market in Rochester.
RIT students collaborating with the Mothers’ Club (yellow shirts) in Borgne, Haiti on income generation projects for rural women.
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