By Katie Jansen | Photos by Pilar Timpane
Duke OIT opened a new Technology Engagement Center this academic year, the home of the Innovation Co-Lab where students can use 3-D printers, laser cutters and a plethora of other tools.
But the Innovation Co-Lab is about more than just building cool stuff – it’s a one-stop shop for all of students’ technical know-how needs.
The Innovation Co-Lab started under the Duke OIT umbrella about four years ago with the “vague idea that students are just as well equipped to own and create the technology they interact with on a daily basis as OIT is,” said Michael Faber, Co-Lab program manager.
Although the Co-Lab’s structure wasn’t completely defined at its inception, it has since evolved into an organization with many offerings, from Roots classes that teach technical skills to community build nights to a grant program for projects.
One of the Co-Lab’s main goals is to “leverage student excitement, skill, and identification of problems to help form the IT environment that we live in,” Faber said.
Faber has had to be innovative himself along the way as he tweaked Co-Lab offerings to best fit students’ interests. For example, the Co-Lab used to hold challenges that tasked students with building something for Duke’s mobile platform. Winning projects would receive a cash prize.
Although the challenges helped Faber identify who was interested in building and technology, he soon found the incentive wasn’t right.
“Students didn’t seem to care about a big pot of money at the end of a tunnel if they didn’t care about the thing that they were building,” he said.
So the Co-Lab flipped the model. Tell us what you want to build, the Co-Lab said, and we will fund viable projects with reasonable budgets.
This was the birth of the Co-Lab’s current grant program and has been successful in kicking off student ideas that need validation and a modest budget.
“At first, we were putting up thousands of dollars as prizes,” Faber said. “But turns out all they wanted is $600 and mentorship along the way.”
The Duke Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative funded a portion of the Co-Lab’s operational budget for its first three years. Duke I&E and the Innovation Co-Lab now work as partners in Duke’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
For example, The Co-Lab and Duke I&E are collaborating after receiving a gift from Red Hat for programming focused on Open Source Pedagogy, Research + Innovation (OSPRI).
The Innovation Co-Lab is using part of the gift, which is housed partially within Duke I&E, to administer smaller grants for projects that use open-source software to advance humanitarian issues. The first grant recipient, the Duke chapter of eNABLE, will make free prosthetic limbs for those who need them.
“I see it as a spectrum of offerings,” Faber said. “The people who are successful with what they’re doing here at the Co-Lab and have an entrepreneurial outlet for what they’re doing tend to then go to Melissa & Doug and go to the Duke in Silicon Valley program and take advantage of the resources that Duke I&E has to offer.”
Although the Co-Lab encourages students to be innovative, Faber said he sees a difference between innovative and entrepreneurial.
“I do think it’s important to have resources specifically for innovation and not for entrepreneurship per se – an entry point for people who don’t necessarily want to think about starting companies,” he said.
But often, the two go hand-in-hand, and many students are taking advantage of resources offered at both the Co-Lab and at Duke I&E, such as Victor Wang, a junior computer science major who is pursuing the I&E Certificate and who works at the Innovation Co-Lab.
Wang first got involved with the Co-Lab because of his interest in 3-D printing, but soon realized the organization had much more to offer.
Not only does Wang hold office hours to help other students with their projects and teach Roots classes, but he’s also developing an application program interface (API) for other students’ use.
Wang’s project focuses on opening the data of various Duke systems, such as information from the university’s public directory, which can then be incorporated into other apps or projects.
“(Wang) has really helped shape the tech environment that we have and can offer to students,” Faber said.
Wang is using the API for his own venture, Campus Wallet. He joined forces with a student who took one of his Roots classes, and now the team is working on creating an app that stores an electronic form of loyalty punch cards used by some campus businesses.
Wang said his experiences at the Co-Lab provide good insight for his I&E classes, and vice versa. He is using his work at the Co-Lab as one of his required experiences for completion of the Certificate.
Although Wang has always been interested in technology and coding, he used to focus on writing games for his own enjoyment.
“When I learned more about programming, I realized it wasn’t just about writing games,” he said. “It’s about writing quality software that changes the way people live or can blend into people’s daily lives.”
Taking classes with Duke I&E has helped to give him a sense of the bigger picture and how to use his skills in technology to help people, he said.
Likewise, the Co-Lab has helped him bolster these technical skills so he is able to apply them in entrepreneurial settings.
And for students who don’t have the technical skills when they come in, the Co-Lab wants to equip them with what they need.
The Co-Lab holds “office hours,” or windows of time during which students can come in to seek help on their personal projects or tech issues.
Since the Co-Lab has begun offering the classes, Faber said, many new people have come to check out the Co-Lab’s offerings and gotten involved in tech innovation.
“Before the classes, it was like, ‘We’re going to support people who know tech and want to do something with it,’” Faber said. “We were doing a lot of good for a small number of people. But now, we’re helping people become literate with this technology.”
The Co-Lab also works on connecting students so they can find teams to develop their projects. The staff is working on a platform that will help connect people with ideas with the people who have the skills to implement the ideas.
“I think it’s great when art majors and engineers work on projects together,” Faber said. “There’s a lot of value in having public policy and economics majors work on finding technology solutions.”
Faber hopes the resources offered at the Co-Lab help these students of other majors gain at least a basic understanding of tech.
“Even if you’re not going to be the one writing code, it’s good to take a Roots class on HTML and CSS so you can at least understand how all that works and have a conversation with the person who’s going to be writing the code,” he said.