ISU’s Innovation Consulting Community: Teaming students with mentors to serve real clients
A new program is giving Illinois State students an opportunity to get a head start on their careers while helping the community. The University’s Innovation Consulting Community (ICC) is only in its second year, but it packs a big punch for students looking to be creative, to work as part of a team supported by seasoned mentors, and to gain experience that will make them more marketable in the job hunt.
The ICC offers students a chance to learn outside the classroom. They collaborate with students from across the University to take on a complex and real—not theoretical—problem that an organization faces, and they propose a solution.
The experience exposes students to leaders and decision-makers at client organizations, said Peter Kaufman, one of the ICC coordinators and an Illinois State marketing professor.
“Clients are for-profit, nonprofit, global, local, on campus, off campus,” Kaufman said. “There are a lot of layers.”
The students gain experience working with clients in diverse fields, including education, environmental sustainability, health care, and technology. Many of the projects involve civic engagement: Groups have helped local governments use recycled glass in construction products; created a marketing plan to increase the use of alternative modes of electric transportation by Illinois State students, faculty, and staff; and developed a recycling program for a maker of consumer-packaged goods.
The ICC is following a rarely used model.
“Based on our research,” Kaufman said, “we have found very few programs that are teaming students from across the university on client projects as an extracurricular professional development experience.”
The ICC targets four critical areas that organizations value when hiring employees: professionalism/work ethic (initiative), oral and written communications, teamwork/collaboration, and critical thinking/problem-solving. ICC projects are specifically designed to provide students with experience in these areas that employers are looking for in college graduates.
ICC coordinators guide program development and hail from multiple colleges across campus. The faculty mentors help the groups follow a design-thinking model: They define and understand a problem; gather a team to develop an array of solutions by engaging with users to fix the problem; and finally, pick the best from those solutions through testing, analysis, and experimentation.
The program is open to all majors at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Though the students do not earn college credit, they develop professional presentation and writing skills.
“Students can cite this experience when they’re trying to get a job,” Kaufman said. “And, it’s across departments. We collapse silos so students are collaborating with others from across campus like in the real world.”
ICC is catching on around campus and in the community. Last fall, over 65 students from 28 academic areas signed up for the program. Groups have worked with some well-respected health care organizations, Central Illinois city government and public schools, and international nongovernmental groups, among others.
Jasmine Mason, a graduate student in the cognitive behavioral sciences master’s program, joined ICC last fall.
“Being new to the city, I wanted to get involved in the community in order to learn more about the town and meet new people,” said Mason, who is from Jacksonville, Florida. “I chose this as a good way to get involved and make a positive impact on the community while learning as well.”
Mason likes the flexibility, the variety of programs, and the opportunity to utilize her skills and pursue her interests.
“I hope to be able to apply my knowledge as a psychology student and researcher to the project,” Mason said.
ICC recruits students using a variety of strategies, including a “WANTED” poster that invites “students who wish to build innovation and critical thinking skills outside of a traditional class” to an informational meeting.
ICC accepts students in the fall semester after they complete a short application and interview process. They prepare for their client projects by working through online modules in project management, leadership, design thinking, self-awareness, and conflict resolution. Teams are formed later in the semester, and projects are completed in the spring, with findings delivered at the ICC Symposium in early April.
Currently, there are 17 projects available to students, while nine were completed last year. The ICC finds most clients through word-of-mouth and networking with Illinois State alumni. The goal, Kaufman said, is to find projects involving nonprofit and for-profit organizations that require the skills of students from across Illinois State’s six colleges.
“A good example of a client this year is one of the largest medical complexes in Illinois,” he said. “The student team is comprised of students from nursing, community health, finance, marketing, and economics.”
ICC’s goal is to get results for clients while also providing the students—supported by mentors—needed experience and exposure. Mentors can be faculty members or community and business leaders. The students lead and manage the projects while mentors are available to advise and consult when needed.
“The ICC is a path to get students positioned for higher quality internships and higher-quality jobs and to provide them with exposure to industries that otherwise may be difficult for them to access at an early career stage,” said Kaufman, who has a corporate background that includes working for Nabisco Biscuit Co. and DuPont.
One of the ICC’s newest clients is a mentor on her own project. Joan Brehm is a professor of sociology at Illinois State. It’s her calling, however, that connects her to the ICC.
For more than 20 years, she has been a search and rescue K-9 handler, training her four-legged partners to search and find missing people and human remains. She has volunteered for the past 10 years with the McLean County Emergency Management Agency.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I’ve met so many extraordinary people, and I get to help them at a critical time.”
For her ICC project, Brehm is working with fellow mentor Missy Nergard, director of the Office of Sustainability at Illinois State and one of ICC’s coordinators. Nergard, who is also a K-9 handler, recommended Brehm submit her project idea related to K-9 training. They will have ICC students observe training sessions while handlers put their dogs through exercises.
The dogs are taught to target odor, alert their handler, and stay put. These same complex training methodologies are used in training dogs to find drugs and bombs, but Brehm’s dogs are searching for human remains that may be disarticulated or scattered.
“We train them to detect odor X and perform a behavior Y, and the dogs get rewarded,” Brehm said. “The dogs need to perform their alert in close proximity so we can direct forensics people where to look.”
Brehm said she is excited about the project, describing herself as a “blank slate” for new ideas and open to the opportunity to work with ICC students.
“Do we come up with a completely new design or redesign the tool we have?” Brehm said.
The answers to questions like that should come this semester as the ICC now has a team of students—composed of pre-veterinarian, psychology, and business students—evaluating the current state of dog training.
“We want to get students who come in without preconceived notions and who already think outside the box,” Brehm said.
How to get involved in the Innovation Consulting Community
Project coordinator Peter Kaufman is seeking students (any major), mentors, and collaborators to participate in the Innovation Consulting Community. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit innovationconsulting.community.
John Moody can be reached at jemoody2@IllinoisState.edu.