Kent State’s Design Innovation Hub is a New Approach to Higher Education

design innovation hub

How the collection of maker spaces, amenities and technology is encouraging collaboration and forward thinking

It’s no secret that Ohio has some of the best and most diverse colleges and universities in the country, with globally renowned programs in everything from engineering and medicine to business and law. But as our world changes and the traditional method of schooling adjusts, some schools are looking toward innovation and embracing technology to rethink the way we view higher education. One of those schools is Kent State University, where the school’s Design Innovation Hub is blazing a new trail for the college experience.

“Our core purpose is to be a catalyst and support mechanism to help stimulate cross-disciplinary collaboration across the university for students, faculty and staff,” said Executive Director J.R. Campbell. “In the broader sense, part of our goal is to help any student in any major become a fearless collaborator. We apply a lot of design thinking, process and tools to the way we’re helping students and others see opportunities for innovation, and it’s always in the context of collaborative teams. We’re really trying to teach our students the value of diversity in teams and the compelling experience of people from completely different backgrounds tackling problems together.”

The hub is part of the Design Innovation program at Kent State, an initiative that aims to create “a dynamic continuum of spaces, events and people dedicated to ideas, innovation and creation through interdisciplinary collaboration.” The DI program engages students through non-traditional methods, offering a variety of spaces, experiences and technology aimed not toward advancing a major or offering classes, but providing different types of learning.

“We’re not a school or a degree program or a discipline at Kent State, it’s an intentional initiative that stands alone and separate from the colleges,” Campbell said. “We’re doing our best to break down the silos that exist across the university and for our students. Most people, not just students, have a lot of negative feelings about team-based work. We want to have people understand better how to utilize everyone’s voice on a team. That process is what we’re about.”

To achieve those goals, the hub has specifically created a variety of amenities and spaces that fill gaps on campus and enhance existing technology across a variety of disciplines at Kent State. For instance, Campbell said he realized there was no industrial water jet cutter on campus, so they installed one that can cut through four inches of steel and it became one of the DI Hub’s more in-demand tools. Similarly, while the fashion school already had a printer capable of printing on textiles, the DI Hub added one that was capable of printing on synthetics. One of the most unique ideas in the space is the Blank Lab, a groundbreaking space built for “immersive technologies” like virtual or augmented reality.

“It’s kind of a play on the idea of a black box theater, where you have a blank space that can be reconfigured to any kind of performance,” Campbell said. “That’s how we started thinking about the Blank Lab. With the emerging intersection between film and digital video replacement and projection-based immersive experiences with AR or VR experiences, we wanted to create a maker environment for students, faculty and staff to experiment across those technologies. We found that these VR-style spaces tend to be built for single-use purposes, which means they only get used for those scenarios. So we created this high-tech strategy for thinking about how we could build a totally immersive space to create interactive experiences.”

If all this thinking outside the box seems like a major departure from traditional university operations, that’s intentional. According to Campbell, the DI Hub isn’t designed to be like a classroom, it’s meant to provide “a place to experiment, fail fast and do things quickly.” The pace of technology isn’t slowing down any time soon, and Kent State wants to be on the forefront of how we adjust to that growth.

“This is something that’s going to define the future of higher education,” Campbell said. “The universities that don’t figure out how to become more agile and provide more meaningful, open environments that aren’t just about following a degree path are going to struggle. Universities have to figure out better ways to understand how we deal with data and data management, along with access to content-based learning that doesn’t have to be held within the traditional walls of a university. Most college students now have been in high schools, middle schools or even elementary schools that have access to maker spaces. So if they show up on campuses without that access and those tools, they’re going to look for places that do.”

With their innovative, forward-thinking approach, Kent State is in good company in northeast Ohio. Campbell said Ohio’s unique combination of manufacturing and innovation history means that the amenities and ideas offered by the DI Hub aren’t just starting from scratch, they’re building on the foundation created by years of Ohio thinking leading the charge.

“This region has all kinds of resources, talent and skills, and everyone is trying to reconfigure that in our new manufacturing era,” he said. “So I think, both in terms of how we attract new students to the university and how we interact with the entrepreneurs and existing businesses in our region, this is very much about the sweet spot we have in Ohio. In our region, we have machinists every other block and there’s a rich history of high-quality and technical manufacturing capabilities that you don’t see elsewhere. Now, we’re opening up new modes and venues with things like electric vehicles and it’s exciting to think how they’ll impact manufacturing in our region.”

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