Binghamton University Innovation Scholars tackle local, global issues

Students from across campus search for human-centered solutions

As the COVID-19 pandemic began making its way through the United States in early 2020, a dire need for ventilators became very apparent.

Binghamton University mechanical engineering major Jacob Goodman and his cohort of fellow students were presented with a challenge on a Friday in March – what could the students do to help solve this problem?

“The design process can be summed up by taking a problem and delivering a solution,” he said. “I determined the defined problem, and I went to Walmart and found a solution.”

Using items found in any large department store, such as a lunchbox, a collapsible water bottle and a silicone straw, Goodman built a prototype of a working ventilator in his room on campus by the end of the weekend.

Goodman’s innovative and quick thinking received praise from local and national media outlets. The prototype was a result of the work he had been doing with the Binghamton University Innovation Scholars, an interdisciplinary program that encourages students to design human-centered solutions to real-world problems.

“We look at problems with a human-centered lens,” said Goodman. “We are taught to put ourselves in another person’s shoes and empathize, and then use that to design a better product or idea or system or service to help.”

Who is creative?

Established in 2018 from the vision and support of Barry Goodman ’79, the Innovation Scholars program is now in its third year, with 30 students currently enrolled. Over 60 students have participated over the course of the past three years.

Managed by School of Management Dean Upinder Dhillon and Vice Provost for Online and Innovative Education James Pitarresi, the program recruits sophomores from across campus each year into the three-year program.

“We want to prepare students for the 21st century economy, where there will be more emphasis on solving large, unstructured problems,” said Dhillon. “We put students in an environment to learn not only how to come up with solutions, but how to structure problems.”

Jacob Goodman, now a senior, was part of the first cohort of students recruited.

“You can think of us as the prototype class,” he laughed. “The program has changed quite a bit, and it’s been great to help develop what this program will look like for future students.”

One recent development has been the introduction of a one-credit course for the new sophomores in the program. Pitarresi, who teaches the course, said it was created by the scholars using the design-thinking process.

“Together, we were learning what was and wasn’t working,” he said. “It was a way of formalizing the lessons we learned in the first two years of the program.”

Pitarresi begins the course by asking students “who is creative?”

“Typically, nobody raises their hand,” he laughed. “People think of creativity as having artistic skills, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a mindset that is open to possibilities, is collaborative, is inquiring and is constantly adapting to what is real. That’s the mindset I want these students to develop.”

Pitarresi then spends the semester guiding students through a design-thinking methodology, breaking down the process into 15 steps spread across four simple questions:

  • What if?
  • What wows?
  • What works?
  • What’s next?

“It gives students who say they aren’t creative on day one a toolset to now tackle just about any human-centered problem that exists,” he said.

After the introductory course, students spend their junior and senior years in a more unstructured fashion, developing solutions to real-world problems in the forms of products and services.

“We think of junior and senior year as ‘we bought you a toolbox and showed you how to use the tools,’” said Pitarresi. “Now go use them and go build something.”

Fail fast and fail often

Students are encouraged to think on both a local and global scale.

A significant portion of the second year of the program was dedicated to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals — 17 goals that range from no poverty to zero hunger to reducing inequalities.

“These are the largest problems the world is facing today. We wanted students to know that this is the level they could be thinking at,” said Dhillon. “No matter how large or small the problem is, we want you to be thinking about solutions.”

The program has also brought in speakers from the Binghamton community to discuss local issues and problems.

“There are a lot of great problems in the local area that are solvable, whether it’s a lack of grocery stores in certain areas or lack of access to housing,” said Goodman. “Thinking on these different levels has taught us how to pick our problems better.”

Dhillon said he’s encouraged by the project ideas that are beginning to take shape.

“How can we make grocery stores more accessible to people with disabilities? How can we open up more financial resources for students? These are the human-centered questions that our students are asking,” he said.

Once ideas are hashed out, students work on prototypes and pitches.

“Pitching is critical,” said Dhillon. “Without a pitch, you have nothing. So, we want students to go through the trial and error process to develop a prototype, and then learn how to go and pitch that prototype.”

Dhillon believes one of the most important experiences students can take away from the program is failure.

“Failure is part of the process,” he said. “Failure teaches resilience and drive.”

Goodman says the emphasis on failure is one of his biggest takeaways.

“One of the main themes is basically to fail fast and fail often,” said Goodman. “If you’re going to try a lot of things out, a lot of those things aren’t going to work. We’re proof of that. It’s great to be in an environment where we’re allowed to do this.”

What’s next?

Ambitious developments are underway for the program.

Dhillon said he hopes to have a few marquee projects under development within the next couple of years, hoping that some may even graduate on to the Koffman Southern Tier Incubator in Binghamton.

Work is underway on an Innovation Lab, which will be co-located with the Zurack Family High-Technology Collaboration Center in the Glenn G. Bartle Library. With construction set to begin in early 2021, Pitarresi hopes to have the lab up and running by fall 2021.

“It’s going to look great, function great and be a great space for collaboration,” Pitarresi said. “There will be spaces for any students on campus to come and collaborate, as well as spaces for the scholars to work on projects, pitches and prototypes.”

Features will include adjustable furniture and walls, allowing for customizable spaces to accommodate different crowd sizes and events. The goal is to have a modern look and feel, replicating something you’d see in Silicon Valley.

Dhillon said the space will be consistent with the innovative goals and ideas of the program.

“We wanted a design that straddled the line between flashy and plain in order to remind students that ideas don’t come from flashy technologies. Ideas come from people, and can be developed using something as simple as sticky notes,” he said. “We’re creating an ecosystem that provides a catalyst for innovation.”

As he approaches the end of his time at Binghamton, Goodman said being an Innovation Scholar has already made a lasting impact on him.

“This is stuff I’ll be carrying with me forever,” he said. “Whatever job I take in whatever field I end up, I’ll be coming up with solutions to problems. And these are the tools I’ll be taking with me to transform problems into incredibly valuable solutions.”