The Charger Blog

Diving into the Complexities of Being a Change Agent on Campus

The University of New Haven’s Innovation Fellows reflect on the projects they are pursuing and the experiences they have had through their participation in a nationwide program supported by Stanford University.

December 3, 2018

By Jackie Hennessey, contributing writer

2018 University Innovation Fellows: Alice Antcliff '21, Cameron Niemiec '21, Chris Dinnis '20, and Amanda Arango '19

Cameron Niemiec '21 wanted to pursue an idea to create a community garden on campus. He pictured a greenhouse as a collaborative space where students could grow fresh vegetables that could be sold to Sodexo and eaten in the campus dining halls. Alice Antcliff '21 was also interested in encouraging students around the University campus to eat locally. She wanted to work with the University to create a composting program that could turn food waste into nutrition-rich soil for community gardens here.

Maria-Isabel Carnasciali, associate professor of mechanical engineering, encouraged Niemiec and Antcliff — two University Innovation Fellows — to request a meeting with administrators and staff in the Facilities department. There, they discovered that the University had a greenhouse and that Donald Stankus, a practitioner in residence in Nutrition and Dietetics, and his students were growing microgreens there.

That gave Niemiec a new idea — no need to start from scratch but better to work with those already at work on the greenhouses. "The greens are highly nutritious and they grow in a very short time. With several greenhouses around campus other produce and herbs could be grown," Niemiec said. "My part in all of this is to help design a way for watering the plants, gathering rainwater and pressuring it, so it can be misted over the plants." In the fall the civil engineering student worked with engineering faculty, developing a water system and Antcliff hopes the compost can be used in the greenhouse.

"UIF showed me that it is possible to make a difference on your campus and gave me the courage to do it myself."Matthew Sheehy '19

"This is how things happen when you are an innovator," said Carnasciali, who is also a faculty member in the University’s new Entrepreneurship and Innovation department. "You have an idea and then you talk to people and make connections. You begin to understand how the University ecosystem works and how you can move your idea forward."

Antcliff, a chemistry major, said she "has learned a lot about the weight of leadership, and the impact that the small motions a leader makes can have on a bigger community."

Last year, Antcliff, Niemiec, and Christopher Dinnis '20, and Amanda Arango '19, a marketing major, became the 4th group of University students named University Innovation Fellows (UIF), a program of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design created as part of the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, a five-year National Science Foundation grant to provide students with tools and strategies to make change on their campuses. The UIF motto? "We believe students can change the world."

Mentored by Carnasciali, the Fellows took part in six weeks of online training and traveled to the University Innovation Fellows Silicon Valley Meetup in Palo Alto, California, sharing and shaping their ideas with more than 250 Fellows from 64 universities around the world, part of a larger network of 1500 fellows from around the world. They collaborated in labs on the Google campus and received year-round mentorship from Stanford professors and industry leaders across many disciplines. The Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) has funded University of New Haven students’ costs each year.

Matthew Sheehy '19, a mechanical engineering major, said his UIF experience "showed me that it is possible to make a difference on your campus and gave me the courage to do it myself."

Sheehy and Austin Thomas '19, who became Fellows in 2017, are leading efforts to grow the maker community on campus. "They’re encouraging students from across the University to make something, to give it a try, fail fast and try again," Carnasciali said.

Sheehy talked with engineering faculty about purchasing more tools and, after they did, he found that the tools had a steep learning curve. So he set out to teach himself how to use them all. He created a how-to display and regularly instructs students on how to use the tools. As a result, he said, "there has been a lot more activity in the space," he said.

Thomas, meanwhile, worked with engineering faculty to organize workshops to get more engineering students involved and to encourage art and graphic design students who used the University Makerspace for typography and digital fabrication classes, to develop new projects. "They brought passion, creativity, and a desire to use the resources we have available," Thomas said. "I have been working with Dr. Carnasciali to reach out to students all across the University."

"The UIF program changes the Fellows as students and they change our campus culture."Maria-Isabel Carnasciali, associate professor of mechanical engineering

With the University Makerspace flourishing, Arango is working with Brian Marks, executive director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation program, aspiring to create a different kind of collaborative place: a thinking space/startup incubator. "Creativity, new ideas, and a startup mindset are imperative to marketing because you need ideas to sell ideas," Arango said. "The other newly initiated Fellows have been so inspiring, making me excited and motivated to do more to make a difference on my campus."

Daniel Delgado '17, now an associate engineer at Metro-North Railroad, said the UIF program taught him how important it is to "take innovative approaches to solve problems and how, in project management, stakeholder buy-in and acceptance is critical. I’ve learned that it never hurts to suggest a new way to conduct business."

The University’s first Fellow, Jonathan Spiegel '17, organized the first 3 Day Start Up event on campus learned "to develop a timeline, execute tasks, advertise, lead a team, fundraise, pitch and do much more," he said, noting that these are skills he uses as an applications engineer at RBC Heim Bearings in Fairfield. Both Delgado and Spiegel continue to serve as mentors at the University and in the UIF national program.

Jillian Jacques '20, a computer science major and 2017 Fellow, said she is grateful for the University’s emphasis on innovative thinking. "The most helpful part of this innovation ecosystem, for me, is knowing that the support starts at the top with President Kaplan and is working its way down to the roots, our students," Jacques said.

"The UIF program changes the Fellows as students and they change our campus culture," Carnasciali said. "And then they will make contributions to the communities they decide to live in."

For an inside look at the UIF program, check out Sheehy, Austin, Jacques and Dan Woronick’s insights in the 2017 KEEN Viewbook.