Two representatives of the da Vinci Center at Virginia Commonwealth University hosted workshops this week on how design thinking and entrepreneurship can help Northern overcome projected enrollment challenges. They also met with a number of academic departments seeking to transform programs.
Executive Director Garret Westlake and Academic Alchemy Director Allison Schumacher were intentionally brought to campus at the same time as demographics expert Nathan Grawe. They provided a positive, forward-thinking response to the sobering, evidence-based predictions for enrollment declines at Midwestern universities over the next decade.
“In pockets across this university, there are areas of excellence not everyone knows about,” Westlake said. “We're like bees doing cross-pollination. We're sharing with administrators and departments themes and values that emerge that are unique to NMU and could gain national prominence with a greater emphasis on storytelling beyond the U.P. Despite the recent college admissions scandal, there's not much difference in value among institutions to the extent people assume there is. There are fantastic institutions with unbelievable assets to prepare people for a successful future in beautiful settings like this. That creates a huge opportunity to highlight Northern.”
The VCU da Vinci Center is a unique collegiate model that advances innovation and entrepreneurship through cross-disciplinary collaboration. Westlake has worked with Pfizer, Capital One, CarMax and other corporations. He said universities no longer have a monopoly on knowledge and innovation.
“Industry has demonstrated its own engine for innovation,” he said. “Universities are having to play catch up in some cases, particularly with the startup culture and technology such as AI [artificial intelligence] and self-driving cars. Universities that maintain silos apart from industry will eventually be left out of the conversation. They need to adapt and work in collaboration with innovative industries.”
Schumacher's job is to find the best chemistry for the daVinci Center's academic programs and industry partnerships. She describes design thinking as problem solving with empathy.
“It's looking at connecting end users or customers to solutions to a problem,” she said. “You experiment and iterate, but you keep the user in mind. Want to increase enrollment? Ask students what they hope to do after they graduate and work backward toward achieving that goal. There's a lot of opportunity for relationship building and helping students map out the journey to where they envision themselves after school while they're still in school. Most students change careers pretty quickly. It's our job to prepare them to do that.”
Westlake and Schumacher said SRA transformative initiative proposals to reduce credit hours required for majors and eliminate a minor requirement would give students the freedom to explore more disciplines that might factor in to their evolving careers.