President Bruce Benson's newsletter
Dear Alumni and Friends,
When I started my job at CU 10 years ago I was already familiar with the university as an alumnus, volunteer and donor, not to mention my work on higher education reform panels for several governors. But I also had a lot to learn about our complex and far-flung enterprise.
One program that started at the same time I did caught my attention because of its intriguing name – the Bachelor of Innovation (BI) degree program on our Colorado Springs campus. The Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts are standard at universities, so I wondered what was different about the BI.
The BI is the brainchild of UCCS Computer Science Professor Terry Boult, who had tried to start the program at other institutions. At UCCS he found an administration willing to think outside the box and create a unique degree program.
The difference between the BI degree and a BA or BS is in the courses surrounding a student’s major. A business major, for example, will get a depth of knowledge in a specialty area such as finance or marketing. The BI is a family of degrees that provides an innovation core curriculum and a cross-discipline core around their major that gives students a breadth of skills to innovate.
Boult developed the idea after hearing from employers about skills that were missing in recent graduates and new hires, and experiencing that lack directly in his own entrepreneurial venture. Common threads included presentation skills, the ability to work in teams, taking initiative and communicating with people in disparate fields. They set out to fill that void and now, 10 years on, the concept and program have proven quite successful.
When I first heard about it I wondered if innovation could be taught. Absolutely, says program director Dr. Nina Polok. She and her colleagues define innovation as the transformation of an idea into impact, and then asked what skills are necessary to make it happen. It’s a process with steps that can be taught.
She uses the example of an iPhone. Certainly it was innovative, but no one person designed it or built it. It takes a team and, as Polok stresses, innovation is a team sport. With that starting point, faculty developed a program in which students work in teams of typically four. All courses in the innovation core are team taught, so professors model teamwork. Some faculty are recruited for their specialty skillsets, for instance in startup businesses, social entrepreneurship or cross-disciplinary work.
The BI takes students outside their comfort zones. They learn the language and viewpoints of people beyond their major by taking courses in a different discipline. Students must choose from one of four cross-discipline cores: business, creative communication, engineering and globalization. For example, an engineering major is required to learn how businesspeople think, or to understand how creativity works by engaging those in the arts. They also learn seemingly straightforward concepts too often overlooked, such as how to get help in an area they are unfamiliar with.
The result is students and graduates who are action oriented, resourceful and resilient. They’re ready to tackle problems and are not daunted by areas where they might lack particular skills.
The BI mindset is permeating the UCCS campus. Initially focused on students in engineering, business and computer science, the concept has expanded to areas as diverse as inclusive early childhood education and the visual and performing arts. When it started a decade ago, it had about 100 students. Today the number is pushing 500. There are nearly 220 graduates of the program (some 115 in engineering). The BI has the added benefit of bringing innovation to the way CU approves majors and degrees. Faculty are thinking outside the box and students, many of whom have jobs before they graduate, are the beneficiaries.
Alumni of the program are creating new businesses, running Kickstarter campaigns to fund startups, opening craft breweries and developing video games. They are in high demand.
As the BI program enters its second decade, I have high hopes for its continued success and am thrilled CU offers a degree that lives up to its unique name.
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