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Episode Notes

Episode Title: Prof. James Oliver on ISU’s Student Innovation Center: Bold Experiment.

Episode summary introduction: Professor James Oliver is the Director of the Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University, Ames Iowa.

Prof. Oliver joins us on our podcast today to share Why the Innovation Center was created, the unique programs, activities and opportunities it offers, and how students, faculty and yes, even High Schoolers benefit from it.

In particular, we discuss the following with him:

  • Prof. James Oliver’s Professional Background
  • Origins of the Student Center for Innovation
  • Programs and Activities in the Center
  • Benefits for Students and Faculty

Topics discussed in this episode:

  • Introducing Prof James Oliver [0:36]
  • Prof. James Oliver - Background [2:19]
  • Joining Academia [7:17]
  • 3D Visualization Startup [8:45]
  • Internet Music Startup [10:19]
  • Building a Successful Interdisciplinary Graduate Program [11:35]
  • Birth of The Student Innovation Center [13:44]
  • Center’s Programs for Students, Faculty, High School Students  [21:39]
  • Measuring Center’s Success [25:58]
  • Wrap Up [29:44]

Our Guest: Professor James Oliver is the Inaugural Director of the Student Innovation Center at Iowa State University. Prof. Oliver was awarded the title of University Professor in 2012. Prof. Oliver has a Bachelor’s in Mechanical Engineering from Union College, and a Masters and PhD in Mechanical Engineering from Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI.

Memorable Quote: “...there's a lot of really unique aspects about this building, but it's much more than a building. I like to talk about it in terms of [a] vehicle for culture change here inside the university.”

Episode Transcript: Please visit Episode’s Transcript.


Episode Transcript

Transcript of the episode’s audio.

<Start Snippet> Prof Oliver  0:12  

So if you want music, I'll give you music or the you know, you know that just so that you're walking through. And there's the juggling club and you know, I always wanted to learn how to juggle and What's your major one? How'd you pick that and you're, you know, you're that physical mixing of people that you wouldn't normally run into. That's what this place is all about.

Venkat  0:36  [Introducing Prof James Oliver, ISU]

That is Prof James Oliver of Iowa State University (ISU) talking about the Student Innovation Center.

Hello, I am your host, Venkat Raman.

Something new has been sprouting on US Campuses.

They have different names but they are centers or hubs to foster innovation and entrepreneurship in their student body and faculty.

Iowa State University placed a big bet in 2017 to the tune of $84M to build a Student Innovation Center.

Prof Oliver is the Director of the Center.

Prof Oliver joins us on our podcast today to share Why the Innovation Center was created, the unique programs, activities and opportunities it offers, and how students, faculty and yes, even High Schoolers benefit from it .

So, without further delay, here’s Prof Oliver!


Prof Oliver  1:43  

Hello, Venkat.

Venkat Raman  1:45  

Hello, Jim. How are you?

Prof Oliver  1:47  

I'm just fine. How are you doing?

Venkat Raman  1:49  

I'm doing great. Let me start by welcoming you to our podcast College Matters. Alma Matters. Thank you so much for making the time here.

Prof Oliver  2:00  

My pleasure.

Venkat Raman  2:02  

Fantastic. So. So we wanted to talk about innovation in a big way. Maybe we start with a little bit about your background, how you got into all the stuff anyway, Mechanical Engineering, and so on so forth.

Prof Oliver  2:19  [Prof. James Oliver - Background]

Yeah, that's a good place to start. I'm not the typical mechanical engineer. I think my career's been a kind of eclectic. And in the various directions I went, but I was, I don't come from a family of engineers. But I was always good in math and science. And I had to skip my senior year of high school. If I went to a community college, I moved late in high school, and I hated the one they landed in. So I said, Okay, I'll start college. And I had some good teachers there and, and took all my math and science courses, I was a math major. But one of the unique parts of that experience was I was, was required every It was a quarter system. And every year, you had to spend one quarter on an internship.

Prof Oliver  3:15  

First one was not all that interesting in retail. But the second one, I somehow got hooked up with a company that was doing engineering analyses on big machine systems, big rotor bearing systems. So think power plant power plants, and refineries and big industrial machines, rotating equipment. And the magic at that time, this is the late 70s. These were small company that's fun out of GE, GE R&D, and they were brilliant engineers. And what they would do is get a request, we have a problem, this machine's down too much, and it's costing us millions of dollars a day, what's wrong with it, they would get the drug, they get the drawings from the manufacturers of this model or that model. And my first job was as an engineering aide was to create a math model. Who was interesting, because all I was doing was measuring drawings and entering the punch cards, the dimensions and the nurses and the weights. And then we pile those cards in a reader and it would go off to a mainframe somewhere and backward come some crude looking plots that showed critical speed or stability or it all kinds of analysis programs. But the magic was, they could predict that this inboard bearing is starved and this is wrong. You have too much weight over here that that modification you made is causing this problem, write up write up a report and send it and they fix it and magic. So you know, a world away we were solving problems without ever seeing the machine that was having the problems and it just fascinated me that that was possible. That was my really my first exposure to computers and to mechanical engineering and that I've been that the theme of my career since.

Prof Oliver  5:04  

So as I finished that job or that experience, they kept me on that internship through my junior and senior year, part time basis breaks and summers. And then, of course, offered me a full time position when I graduated. But by then I realized that I had that job figured out. And all the interesting work was being done like people with advanced degrees. And so I applied to graduate schools, and I, all the ones you've heard of Purdue, and Michigan, and RPI, and several others, and the best deal I got was to go back to where I grew up, which was East Lansing, Michigan, Michigan State University. And, and there I was exposed to a really cool guy, Jim Barnard was his name. And he been my mentor most of my career, but he had set up a little lab to do computer aided design, which was in its infancy. And I was fascinated by interactive computing that batch computing and, and the whole idea of doing graphics on computers was just encouraging an interesting.

Prof Oliver  6:15  

I did that and got a master's degree and said, I'm smart enough. And I'm not not smart enough for a PhD, but I'll go go to work. I went to California, and work for a year and a half, but I hated it. And all my old buddies were getting through qualifying exams. And I thought, boy, if they could do it, I could do it. Sure. So I went back. And I kept going with the PhD and worked in more computer graphics for a manufacturing simulation. And so again, software and all that and, and really just had a wonderful time. And the graduate schools, and I convinced everybody if they can do it, they should do it. So so I was a professional student till I was 28. And took a job in interview to close academic jobs, which I didn't think I was cut out for, and industry jobs. And I ended up at a at a CAD company in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Prof Oliver  7:17  [Joining Academia]

That was almost a startup that didn't quite take off. And and I thought I better try my hand at this professor thing before my shelf life runs out. And they hired me at the University of Buffalo, which is a fine program. And I learned a tremendous about their, how to how to teach and how to do research, and was really a great place to launch that part of my career. And then I was recruited to Iowa State University 1991 by my old mentor who started that initial lab in Michigan State, he had become come to Iowa. And he had a new center he was standing up that was, he had a lot of resources. And that sort of Greenfield opportunity to start a center that was focused on advanced manufacturing and the two legs of that, at the time, early 90s. Were what we used to call rapid prototyping, but now we all know is 3D printing, that was one leg of it. And the other leg of it was visualization and simulation, which was my interest. And so it was too appealing to leave. And I thought, What's in Iowa, I had no clue. But I thought I could do any job for five years and move on and 30 some years later. So they treated me really well. And it's been a wonderful ride.

Prof Oliver  8:45  [3D Visualization Startup]

Along the way, some of my old colleagues This is a recommendation to listeners is keep those networks vital. And now we have all the tools to do it. But someone in my old world grad school buddies had started a company here names and it was focused on visualization, again, same legacy. And at the time, there they looked at the industrial kind of design and development supply chain. So big companies like Ford and GE, they've got suppliers and everybody was moving to 3D models, but my system, my system doesn't talk to your system. And so what they developed was a sort of a Switzerland for large model visualization where you could take your suppliers models integrated with your models and do all kinds of digital prototyping, sectioning, measuring clash detection, all kinds of cool stuff. And it's a raging success had an IPO. So I was flying all over the world. So I joined that company after I got tenure, and that's about a three, three and a half year jaunt around the country in the boom times in the late 90s. But I you know, I got to visit a lot of companies all over the World about their problems with developing products and the tools that go along with that really wonderful experience. And then that company got acquired by a bigger company, and all my friends pulled out.

Prof Oliver  10:19  [Internet Music Startup]

I ended up jumping ship as well and went to a startup in Minneapolis. It was doing internet marketing for music. And two things happened at that time. One was the crash the tech crumbling of 2000. But we'll share our thoughts about in space when Apple got into music. Yeah, so their double whammy of missed opportunities. But and so I was sort of looking for what's next and and I could have stayed in the private sector. But they would be back to Iowa State. I picked up where I left off leadership of that research center in 2004. And did that for 15 years and developed a degree program and all kinds of things. So it's been a really satisfying, gratifying career, seeing the students that come through here be successful. And like I said, the universities just been a just an amazing place to develop and grow and, you know, new opportunities all the time. So I've enjoyed it here.

Venkat Raman  11:27  

Sounds fantastic. Plus, you got to go between industry and academia. So not not very many people navigate both those worlds.

Prof Oliver  11:35  [Building a Successful Interdisciplinary Graduate Program]

[What] opened the door on the research front, because when I came back, and in a one, we said that a broad broaden the scope to encompass more, it's not just enough to build these interesting applications, you got to see if they're effective, and actually do what you think they're going to do or improve the, you know, the, whatever problem you're trying to solve. And so we wrote a proposal, internal proposal to stand up a program in human computer interaction. And it was, a lot of those at the time were spurs from computer science, or information science, their psychology, ours was literally grassroots, we had all kinds of stakeholders from all over the university. So it was a grassroots effort to build a curriculum, graduate curriculum, and we got it off the ground. And, again, that just exposed us to a whole new world of psychologists and sociologists and economists and, you know, people that understood, you know, how science is supposed to work, you make a hypothesis, and you collect data, and you see if you're, if your assumptions were correct, right, and just really was a great meld of that, we get students from the technical side that have no idea how to how to make us user study and analyze that data. And then for the other side, you get people from the humanities and other parts of the world that can't believe what you can build with a little bit of technology. And that program just really took off and open the open a lot of other doors. But clearly, VR and AR were part of that whole thing moving forward. So yeah, that was another gratifying build a degree program that really, and wonderful success. You know, so

Venkat Raman  13:27  

With that kind of backdrop, let's talk about this new baby, the Student Innovation Center. Sounds like a huge amount of money invested into it. So yeah. So tell us, you know, how did it come about? And what is it trying to do?

Prof Oliver  13:44  [Birth of The Student Innovation Center]

Sure. Yeah, this is really a Bold Experiment for any university, certainly. For our university here, the the genesis of it was some visionary leadership, close to 10 years ago that got their heads together and looked at the the current kind of trajectory that higher education is on and you look at the trends of increasing student debt and underemployment that college graduates so the whole, you know, the whole value proposition of a bachelor's degree. It gets to be a little wobbly when you you know, the best job you can get as a barista and you've got, you know, six digits student debt, and you're right, yeah, living in mom and dad's basement. It just stalls the whole economy.

Prof Oliver  14:37  

You know, we haven't really innovated a whole lot in Higher Ed, in many hundreds of years. We still have majors and you declare one and they tell you to take these courses in a certain order. And if you're lucky, you get a couple of electives. And then they declare you, an engineer or a chemist or a designer. And then then you go to the real world. You realize it's nothing like college, right? It's complete, completely different world, right? And you have to, you have to understand and accommodate finance and marketing and all these other people that value that, you know, it takes a village to make something a real successful enterprise. Yep. And so that's, that's a steep learning curve for a lot of students.

Prof Oliver  15:26  

Overall goal of this concept was to make our students more effective right out of the gate. So how do we expose them to that kind of environment within that, that four or five years that they're here at the university. And so it was originally our dean of engineering and the Dean of the College of Design, they wrote a white paper of sort of extolling this vision, and floated that around.

Prof Oliver  15:57  

Tremendous alumni here, amazing, amazing, successful alumni. And they are foundations, folks found a family that that resonated with, and that family put up $20 million to get it off the ground. And with that investment, they were able to raise some matching state funds. And that same family anonymously, came up with another 10 million, so a total of $30 million from one family with the caveat that it can't just serve two colleges, it has to serve the entire university. And it has enabled innovation across all the dimensions of our land grant mission that I mentioned earlier. So right, really, really bold mandate. And with that, they were able to raise additional donor funds and state funds for total of $84 million split equally between state and donor funding corporate as well as alumni. And took we had to demolish a couple buildings and broke ground in 2017.

Prof Oliver  17:04  

And my involvement, so I'm an old grizzled faculty member, and they asked me to be on a steering committee and like a lot of cynical professors, we all things are gonna fight over it. And it's just another kind of land grab for space. And nobody quite knew what it was. But right, because I was filling joined the committee and I as it took shape, and we started to talk about how it's going to work, I get more and more interested. And, and in addition to that, we had a leadership change at the President's level. So President Winterstein took over. And she's she's had her whole career here and really talk about hitting the ground running she, she completely embraced this idea and just nurtured it and administration behind this idea of innovation and entrepreneurship. So that that really sort of crystallized the whole vision.

Prof Oliver  18:04  

There's a lot of really unique aspects about this building, but it's much more than building I talked to talk about it in terms of Vehicle for Culture Change here inside the University. So what's unique about it, in addition to all the resources is, first of all, all the colleges have a dedicated space in the building for their programs that are college specific programs. And there are five general University classrooms that could be for any course. But if you take all that space off the top, that still leaves 60% 60 0% of the building square foot is designated as shared, that never ever happens in a university ever.

Prof Oliver  18:53  

So what that means is someone like me, and I have a lot of committees and advising to do this. But that gives us a tremendously, a lot of leeway to try things. And if if they work, they we, we hope they move out into the University and begin to change the culture. And if they don't work, we move them out and try something else. And that again, is very entrepreneurial in itself and how to run a university.

Prof Oliver  19:21  

And like I said, I have a long leash to try things here. It's just been a an amazing experience getting it up and running. So it's really just an amazing resource and potential to to enable that that vision of making our students more more effective right out of the gate and more more willing to, to be open to others right and to be opened in our discipline. So are my four pillars of activity, whether it's a class or a class. Or a project that goes on in here. If they span one of these Four Pillars I call them, they're more than likely willing to get are likely to get some resources here. But those are, those are interdisciplinary activities. experiential learning activities, entrepreneurial mindset, it has something even if you're going to go work at Boeing, you know, you still need to think like an entrepreneur. Right. And then the third, the last is a global perspective, because the world is is shrinking and global as, as what we have to think about. So you spend two or three of those, you have much more likelihood of being being welcomed in here, but everybody is welcome.

Prof Oliver  20:47  

We have tremendous resources, maker spaces of all threads and colors. We have a demonstration kitchen, it's called the culinary creations lab. I have a beautiful glassblowing studio, digital media studio, that's just tremendously resourced student run cafe, student run retail store. Just amazing meeting spaces and collaboration spaces. Again, all the colleges have their activities here as well. So it's a it's really quite a unique and beautiful here in the heart of campus. Resources for everybody.

Venkat Raman  21:26  

It sounds really, really good. Now what, what's an example of a Shared thing that succeeds and goes out? What, what's there...?

Prof Oliver  21:39  [Center’s Programs for Students, Faculty, High School Students]

Yeah, well, it's to the ask, we've got, we're really just standing up our innovation programming, which is right now it's an extracurricular type activity we call the Innovation Fellows Program. But we also have programming called professional practices, programming for faculty, staff, and others, to learn about how to be innovators.

Prof Oliver  21:59  

We also have outreach through K through 12. That's a program called the IFIT, Innovation Fellows in Training where we're allowing these high school students to engage and earn points in case they show up here. If you go through this, this program, and it's three stages of we have mindset, experiences, and then meaningful contribution, they get a credential, it's not, it's not sanctioned by the state or anything, but it's a pin and they can put it on their resume that they put X number of hours into this, this effort, sort of like a club, but a little more structured. And we're leveraging industry partners and, and our alumni base. And we have several innovation, innovation, innovators, and residents that are helping to mentor these projects, most of them so far. And again, we stood this up about a year ago, just as coming on online in August, right. And there was all virtual, but we were really inundated with interest from a ton of students. And some of these projects are focused on industry challenge they put on the table. So we had a company, a food company that wanted to make a soft serve ice cream, different flavor, different color. And so we had, you know, a chemist, the food scientists, the marketing person, and they're mentored by a couple of faculty members and came up with this, you know, they had a little competition at the end and the judging. We've had all kinds of design sprints. With sometimes they're competitions, sometimes they're sponsored by industry, we had one with principal financial, another one with an energy storage company. So these are all examples. Things are coming together with interdisciplinary groups and some ad hoc mentoring. I do have a director of innovation programs is great networker and broker of relationships. And it's just really blossomed into some wonderful projects.

Prof Oliver  23:57  

And this is an yet the building is not complete yet, we're in the final stages of getting all the machines running, because we had to repurpose some rooms for COVID. So we were still not up to you know, 100% but we will be in a couple of months in this place will be full of students and activities. And then I should add, there's, there's all kinds of events and ad hoc things. So this beautiful atrium, Big East West corridor, and it is a high traffic area. And we'll have events there life hacking talks in the afternoons are the Dean of the liberal arts school. So if you want music, I'll give you music or the you know, you know that just so that you're walking through, and there's the juggling club and you know, I always wanted to learn how to juggle and What's your major one how'd you pick that and you know, you're that physical mixing of people that you wouldn't normally run into. That's what this place is all about. So, even put the cafe on the fourth floor, so You got to go upstairs to get your snacks and cafe. And that's intended to get you the mix. And it's happening.

Prof Oliver  25:11  

Although we have the clubs that have been traditionally shunted off into dark corners of the university, so we have a big engineering school here and very competitive teams for, you know, the solar car competition, and, you know, Formula car, Baja car supermileage, they are all now in the building and absolutely thriving. That's a culture change there where they used to be very territorial, you can't use our bandsaw because it's for our project. And now it's all shared resource and beautiful spaces. Yeah, office space for those two orgs. It's just, it's just an amazing resource. So we're, we're thrilled that it's really coming to life now.

Venkat Raman  25:58  [Measuring Center’s Success]

How do you, How are you thinking of measuring success? What, five years from now how would you say this is working?

Prof Oliver  26:06  

That's the toughest question. Obviously, we're going to measure everything, including, you know, projects and activities going on. And we can point to those, but I think, I think five years from now, we will be known as a as a leader in, in innovation across all these these dimensions that I mentioned. And that's just that's sort of external, there's a lot of I know, marketing and gamesmanship involved in that type of metric.

Prof Oliver  26:37  

[Graduates] highly recruited, both in in professional circles, but graduate enrollments and that type of thing, will certainly bolster our entrepreneurship with tremendous entrepreneurship programs here to help with developing business and sort of a growing ecosystem of leaders, and financing and legal and all those issues, you need to get a company off the ground, somewhat that that will be will be bolstered tremendously, as well. But that is that is the toughest question. And I get that periodically. And I guess I just been saying, trust me, it's gonna, it's gonna work.

Prof Oliver  27:22  

It really is a bold experiment, and I'm just fortunate to have the, you know, the opportunity to, to lead it. You know, it's, it's, frankly, easy to do, because everybody wants to work here, right? We're staffing up in a big way. And we're getting the best people and sort of cannibalizing other other units in the university with their best people. But it's, I think, building this team, it's just a, it feels like a giant startup, like a giant venture funded startup, frankly, because it's a huge resource. And just the upside is so, so exciting for me to, to lead it and, and build these programs. So, so yeah, I think I think we will be recognized in whatever circles as, as a very Creative University.

Prof Oliver  28:17  

And I have to say, there really is a lot of work went into planning this resource and how it's going to work. So people traveled all around the country, looking at what other universities have done and are doing. And there's really nothing nothing like this in terms of the breadth of activities and the size, frankly, of this thing, right, right in the heart of campus, it's uh, you know, you'll typically find a couple of colleges that get together and they're gonna remodel some portion of a building, and it's this such and such space, and it'd be maybe the business school and the engineers or the design school and the business school or something like some combination, but nothing with this bold of a mandate. And, and size and scope. It's just quite, quite tremendous.

Venkat Raman  29:09  

So, so Jim, this has been fascinating. This is you're onto something very exciting. So wish you all the best. And thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on innovation on the center.

Prof Oliver  29:25  

Well, it's been a pleasure. And if you ever get close to fly overland, you need to come and see us.

Venkat Raman  29:31  

Absolutely. I might take you up on that offer. Okay.

Prof Oliver  29:34  

That sounds good. Thanks Venkat.

Venkat Raman  29:36  

Yeah, you take care. Bye.

Prof Oliver  29:38  



Venkat  29:44  [Wrap up]

Hi again!

Hope you enjoyed our podcast with Prof Oliver on Iowa State University’s Student Innovation Center.

I believe 2 things stand out:

  • As Prof Oliver says, the Center’s goal is to give graduating students the tools to be effective right away;
  • The Center offers all the University stakeholders the opportunity to interact across various disciplines, instead of operating within your own areas of study or expertise.

I hope this podcast inspires you to explore Iowa State University further for your undergraduate study.

For your questions or comments on this podcast, please email podcast at almamatters.io [podcast@almamatters.io].

Thank you all so much for listening to our podcast today.

Transcripts for this podcast and previous podcasts are on almamatters.io forward slash podcasts [almamatters.io/podcasts].

To stay connected with us, Subscribe to Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts or Spotify or visit anchor.fm forward slash almamatters [anchor.fm/almamatters] to check us out.

Till we meet again, take care and be safe.

Thank you!

Summary Keywords

College Podcast, Iowa State University, Innovation, ISU Student Innovation Center, James Oliver, Entrepreneurship, US Colleges, College Admissions, bold experiment, undergraduate

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