Immediately after being hired by the Honors College at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Owen Foster became acquainted with the Innovation Lab. It makes sense since he was hired as the first director of the college’s Innovations in Honors program.
Despite its name, which might conjure images of test tubes and Petri dishes, the Innovation Lab is a dynamic space that solves problems through the design-thinking process, which breaks a big project down into manageable amounts. Students and instructors work together to create and chart a path for the two-semester sequence.
But Foster was surprised that, after putting in 30 weeks of work, the students didn’t get to display their finished projects. So he came up with the concept of a capstone Innovation Lab Showcase.
“Innovation isn’t about making another widget; it’s about social impact,” said Foster, who came to UTC in 2019 after serving as head of the industrial design department at Savannah College of Art and Design. “For these classes, it was essential to make a presentation, or whatever they chose to do, to tell their story.
“The purpose of this showcase wasn’t about the end result, but it’s about the journey and how they use design thinking and the methodologies and principles into their own tool kits, no matter if it’s their business, law, arts, chemistry, whatever it is. It’s all about a creative mindset.”
Foster said 50 students participated in four different Innovation Lab sequences during the 2020-2021 academic year. He taught two of those courses.
“One of my classes took on diversity and inclusion and a way that it’s talking about personal wellness and the importance of having a diversity within yourself, which you will give back to your family and friends and network or whatever that will eventually impact the community,” he said.
“Another one took on education between the generations where one generation can teach another, but it goes upstream as well. You have Gen Z teaching the baby boomers just as much as the baby boomers could teach them.”
Late in the semester, Foster’s classes made presentations to a group of professionals from the design world.
The 13 students involved in the diversity and inclusion presentation sat in a semicircle in their Honors College classroom, taking turns talking via Zoom to the six professionals from industrial, the arts and digital design fields.
The class members worked together to describe their design process and ultimate goal.
“We look to improve comprehensive wellness, tangible and intangible, by enhancing the diversity of a person’s life,” they said in a statement.
The students explained how the class defined the problem, collected information, brainstormed and analyzed concepts and developed solutions.
With the design professionals serving as a critique board, solutions were presented to gather feedback.
Junior accounting major Reedhi Bamnelkar was one of students responding to questions from the professionals.
“I haven’t ever designed anything like this, designing something from scratch,” Bamnelkar told the group. “It was definitely outside my comfort zone throughout the two semesters. I was lost sometimes, just going with the flow.”
Foster had given them nuggets to guide them throughout the process, she said.
“He put crumbs on a trail, and we just followed those crumbs,” she said. “He guided us along the way, but we never knew exactly where we would end up. We did the research, did the homework, discussed it in class, and think most of us were a little uncertain about where we were going with this.
“What I learned from this is it’s OK to feel uncomfortable sometimes. You still learn from that. I was pushed outside my comfort zone, but I learned something from it. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable now because I have experienced it.”
According to Foster, that’s one of the components of this type of project. Students were supposed to teach each other, learn from each other and “come together to make something amazing,” he said.
“In a design program, there might be some really clever things if it all clicks at the very end,” Foster said. “You have a lot of parts of the puzzle, but you don’t know how to put it together. So with this presentation, we’re coming together.”
Reflecting on the two-semester project, Bamnelkar called the process “enlightening.”
“We can be so right-brained because we are all very analytical, and this project made us realize that we are more creative than we think,” she said. “When we are pushed in the right direction by the right people, then we can be creative and create new things. We all learned something about ourselves as well as about the topics of diversity and inclusion.”