What Starts-Up Here

By Esther Robards-Forbes. Photos by Vivian Abagiu.

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On an autumn Saturday, a group of College of Natural Sciences students gathered to figure out how to see through walls. 

Billed as an Inventors Sprint, the one-day intensive event brought students together with representatives of the Department of Defense to work on problems for the military as part of the Hacking for Defense program. 

Students broke into teams and started kicking around ideas about the challenge of finding new ways to gain awareness of situations through barriers. What about infrared imaging? How about a sensor that could detect pheromones? A dipole antenna to sense electrical conductivity from powdered explosives? Concepts get examined, sorted and discarded. 

“I haven’t really done anything like this before,” said Mallorie Thomas, a freshman biology major. “I love doing puzzles, and solving problems is really fun, but it’s definitely a new experience for me. A little outside my comfort zone, but I’m really glad I’m here.”

At Inventors Sprints, science and engineering students spend all day tackling a real-world problem identified by a company or organization from outside UT.

At Inventors Sprints, science and engineering students spend all day tackling a real-world problem identified by a company or organization from outside UT.

The Inventors Sprints are part of a multi-pronged and first-of-its-kind new program to introduce STEM students specifically to exercising an entrepreneurial mindset. Traditionally, science, technology, engineering and math students have few opportunities to explore ways of applying their ideas to genuine industry and community problems. The new Inventors Program teaches STEM students skills they might not learn in the lab but that they’ll need to be ready to take the startup world by storm. 

This spring, students from across Natural Sciences and the Cockrell School of Engineering are taking the first Inventors Program classes with problems similar to the ones at the Inventors Sprints in the fall. Army Futures Command, which picked Austin for its new headquarters in 2018, along with municipal governments, startup ventures, tech companies and nonprofits will work with students who help come up with solutions to real-world problems. 

The first two sections of the class are already full, and there is a waiting list. 

“Our primary goal is exposing the students to the industry-related research problems of innovation, discovery, design and entrepreneurship,” said Sarah Eichhorn, Texas Institute for Discovery Education in Science executive director. “The secondary goal is the development of professional skills – things like communications, problem-solving, working in a team – things that the workforce is looking for.”

Many STEM students enter college eyeing careers in medicine, big tech or possibly academia. Inventors Program leaders want to pull the curtain back on other career pathways and help students gain skills that they can take with them wherever they end up professionally. 

Although schools around the country, including UT, are pushing entrepreneurship to a wide variety of students, more programs are needed specifically for science majors. For example, Longhorn Startup, based in the Department of Computer Science, serves about 50 undergraduates from throughout the university in its fall seminar and spring lab, which culminates in “Shark Tank”-style pitch sessions. But Natural Sciences alone has 10,000 undergraduates.

“We’re the largest college on campus, and we were very underrepresented in these programs,” said Melissa Taylor, assistant dean for strategy and planning. “Our students have a lot to add to the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Science is hard, and they have a critical eye and a resiliency that is so valuable and a technical expertise that is hard to teach. They are a valuable missing piece.”

The challenge, Taylor said, was convincing science students that entrepreneurship was worth learning. 

“Students mistakenly think this is something for business majors or for someone that wants to get rich and be a CEO,” Taylor said. “In reality, so many endeavors are looking for the science piece. You can find someone else to be the CEO.” 

The Inventors Program developed with elements from another model of success in Natural Sciences: the award-winning Freshman Research Initiative. The program puts first- and second-year science students in research groups around campus, working on real scientific problems. More than 1,000 students per year participate in the program, which has been demonstrated to improve graduation rates and retention of students in STEM disciplines. 

Tim Riedel, an assistant professor of practice, oversees a research stream developing “do-it-yourself diagnostics,” such as an app that can spot skin cancer. A year ago, Riedel developed a complementary course exploring entrepreneurial aspects of research science. That precursor to the new Inventors Program received a boost when two faculty leads in the Freshman Research Initiative, professors Andy Ellington and Eric Anslyn, received support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute to advance transformative, research-related projects in undergraduate education. Taylor and Eichhorn, working closely with a task force of committed friends of the college from outside academia, pulled these pieces together and launched the Inventors Program.  

The ultimate goal is to make the Inventors Program available to every STEM student at UT who stands to benefit from exposure to entrepreneurial learning. The program was designed to be inclusive and welcoming of first-generation college students and those from low-income backgrounds. In the credit-bearing course, students learn they can safely take risks and encounter challenges. 

“You don’t often see inclusiveness and diversity at the forefront of entrepreneurship, unfortunately. It’s often an ‘only the strong survive’ attitude,” said Taylor. “Whether this becomes a core foundation of your undergraduate education, or if it’s something you do for only one semester, we see value.”

Back at the Inventors Sprint, Ilsa Siddiqui, a sophomore biochemistry major, worked with Anya Mohan, a junior neuroscience major, on seeing through walls. 

“In class, I feel like I’m writing a lot of information down,” Siddiqui said. “But for this activity, I’m like, ‘Yes!’ I’ve come to life. My creativity is back. I feel like a child again.”

Mohan, too, experienced learning in a whole new way. “There’s such a high volume of information,” she said, “and we get to figure out what to do with it.”