Teaching innovation at UCF, FIT by giving students room to fail
No matter what the endeavor, failure isn't a bad thing when striving for innovation. Posted June 2016 Video by Caroline Glenn, Florida Today
In the days leading up to Florida Institute of Technology’s Senior Design Showcase, the “F” word creeps into conversations. Working on scant hours of sleep and a few dozen cans of Monster Energy drinks, students are feeling the pressure.
Like the inventors who preceded them — think Leonardo da Vinci’s walking on water shoes, or who saw the Falcon 9 booster crash upon landing last week? — these students have found that success and failure go hand in hand when you’re innovating.
“We want to teach our students to fail intentionally,” said Dan Kirk, associate dean of Florida Tech’s College of Engineering for the past 13 years.
Going to school on the Space Coast, driving distance from Kennedy Space Center, Harris Corp., Northrop Grumman and Rockwell Collins, the innovative mindset is contagious, said new Florida Tech President T. Dwayne McCay. “Every single undergrad is involved in some sort of research,” he said.
At UCF in Orlando, home to Lockheed Martin and Research Park, Thad Seymour Jr., vice provost for the downtown campus, said, “UCF has had innovation in its DNA since the beginning.”
Innovation will be the subject of a special event next month, One Nation: American Innovation, hosted by FLORIDA TODAY and the USA TODAY NETWORK, which own and operate the Central Florida Future, and presented by Harris Corp. The July 13 event will dig into questions like: how to encourage innovation and aspiring entrepreneurs, and why it’s important for the United States to remain a leader in innovation?
Teaching innovation isn’t always easy — certainly not as easy as plastering the word on buildings all over campus.
The push at Florida Tech begins with more group work in the classroom.
“The concept of working on a group project is really sort of how you get the skills to be able to leverage what other people know and connect other things to be able to innovate,” said Jennifer Schlegel, newly appointed director for innovation at Florida Tech. “There are brilliant people in this world who can do it all by themselves, but that’s not the norm.”
Innovation in student inventions
At the heart of Florida Tech and UCF’s innovation push is the Senior Design Showcase, where inventions the likes of hands-free wheelchairs, floating solar farms, sign language-interpreting gloves and 3-D-printed limbs are brought to life from mere blueprints.
For the PriMA Prosthetics team, which took the Florida Tech President’s Cup this year, nine months of failure were essential to manufacturing a successful bionic arm for children and veterans.
“Certainly for us, failure was brought up right away,” said team member Thaddeus Berger, 22, who alongside team leader Doug Brown, graduated in May.
Limited funding and cheaper materials meant blowing through equipment quickly — 12 circuit boards in one night — but ultimately produced a prosthetic arm for less than $1,500; current arms on the market are priced upwards of $75,000. Created using 3-D printers, the hands can open and close in less than one second and hold up to 50 pounds.
When the university came to Brown and his team with the project idea, the students knew they wanted to push further, resulting in the first prosthetic product on the market able to sense touch and keep cool or warm in different environments.
“What we don’t want them to do is repeat things they’ve seen in the classroom, repeat things they’ve seen in a book,” said Kirk, who explained that the university and nearby companies often approach students with ideas. Others come up with the ideas on their own.
Students aren’t tasked with reinventing the wheel, and some of the most innovative ideas often put a new spin on an old favorite. The aluminum bat, McCay explained, wasn’t a big leap from the wooden bat before it, but for its time it was innovation at its best.
Over at UCF, Limbitless Solutions has gifted 15 kids, and counting, with bionic arms at no cost to their families. Developed for less than $500, the first arm went to Alex Pring, then 6 years old, who was born with a partial arm.
“For parents, they’ve been looking for an answer since the child was born,” said Albert Manero, 26, who has studied mechanical and aerospace engineering at UCF.
Although use of a 3-D printer makes it easy to correct mistakes immediately, as well as build new prosthetics as the kids grow, Manero pointed out that even little kinks must be eliminated before each arm is delivered. The arms are being put right to use, after all.
Since delivering the first arm, UCF has provided mentoring, lab spaces and plenty of press to Limbitless, helping a homegrown student project achieve nonprofit status.
Doug Brown, Florida Tech graduate, talks about how the university promotes innovation among its students. Malcolm Denemark
Success in the face of failure
At UCF, students actually compete to see who has failed the hardest through the university’s Failure Competition, brainchild of College of Business Administration Dean Paul Jarley. Last year, it was a music education major who couldn’t read music. The year before, a business student who, after two years of training to join the Armed Forces, discovered his vision was below Air Force standards.
“I’ve been at war with helicopter parents for a long time. Helicopter parents are people who want to insulate their kids from any failure at all,” explained Jarley. “What I see is when some of those of kids do have challenges and when they have failure, it paralyzes them. So the Failure Competition is really about de-stigmatizing failure.”
Both winners were able to quickly adapt and find a Plan B, an essential tool to overcoming failure.
“If your primary fails, you better know where to go next,” said Seetha Raghavan, associate professor at UCF’s College of Engineering.
Kirk added that it’s important to note the difference between good failures and bad failures. Lead investigator to Florida Tech’s latest unmanned rocket experiment, Kirk was glad to see his team’s project fail, no joke, 50 times before liftoff.
“All of those failures on the ground are wonderful things,” he said. It’s better for them to happen during the testing stages rather than on the International Space Station, where time is precious.
Failure may be a dirty word in some cultures, but not at Central Florida’s universities, where the innovators of tomorrow are plugging away to pioneer the greatest thing since sliced bread — hey, it was in loaf form until someone got tired of slicing.
If you go
What: One Nation: American Innovation presented by Harris Corp.
Where: Port Canaveral, Cruise Terminal No. 1
When: 5:30 p.m., July 13
Cost: $10 per person, includes appetizers and beer
For more information, check out the landing page Floridatoday.com/AmericanInnovation
Check out our pair of videos on collegiate innovation at ucfnews.com.
Caroline Glenn is the Content Manager for the Central Florida Future. Contact her at email@example.com or 321-576-5933, or follow her on Twitter @bycarolineglenn.