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Product Design Incubator NSF Grant

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PDI: Fostering Entrepreneurial Mindset Through Interdisciplinary Product Design

Grant Overview

Data Center Operations Tech (DCO Tech) is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) through its Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program (Award #2055717). The goals of this project are to improve regional pathways to careers in Engineering Technology (ET) and Data Center Operations (DCO). This project funds summer bridge programs for high school students, externships for high school counselors, and career development for NOVA’s ET and DCO students.

This project aims to serve the national interest by improving the communication, collaboration, and critical thinking skills of technicians in training through entrepreneurial product design training. Employers in the information and engineering technology (IET) sector report that the employee talent pool lacks these “soft” skills that are demanded by the modern workplace. Traditional IET programs do not foster soft skills, instead focusing on the acquisition of technical knowledge. A promising method to teach is skills is product design – a holistic set of methodologies that applies engineering, entrepreneurship, and creative skills to the development of new products or services. As an interdisciplinary collaborative process, product design functions as a microcosm of the workplace, aiding in the development of skills required by regional employers. Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA)’s Product Design Incubator (PDI) is an interdisciplinary project designed to train groups of community college students through a product design challenge. The PDI curriculum will integrate introductory entrepreneurship education and training (EET) and design thinking to guide students from initial ideation through the prototyping and pitch processes. PDI will be situated at NOVA’s Fab Lab and will incorporate NOVA faculty, regional entrepreneurs and IET professionals to support student products. PDI will increase contact between students and industry professionals, foster interdisciplinary collaboration between NOVA students and staff, and increase the supply of IET workers with industry-required collaboration, communication, and critical thinking skills.

PDI’s primary goal is to improve soft skills through product design instruction. PDI has 4 components: 1) a series of entrepreneurship workshops focused on learning entrepreneurship skills through a series of product design exercises; 2) a four-week summer product design internship during which student groups will work with an interdisciplinary group of faculty, regional entrepreneurs and the Fab Lab staff to prototype, test, and refine their idea; 3) an industry-centered pitch event for student groups to present their ideas to regional entrepreneurs and professionals who will provide feedback on student product prototypes; and 4) a follow-up academic year mentoring plan to help students develop their summer work into a portfolio, focus their career interests, or continue to develop their idea into an actionable business. Throughout the product duration, PDI will provide product design instruction to 60 students. During year 1, PDI will use an advisory cohort structure of 12 students, who will provide formative feedback on the program. During years 2 and 3, cohorts will expand to 24 students. PDI will advance the understanding of the efficacy of product design-centered EET in improving communication and collaboration skills, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset, and improving interdisciplinary knowledge. Results from NOVA PI will provide insights into the integration of EET into technician education to strengthen soft skills. This project is funded by the Advanced Technological Education program that focuses on the education of technicians for the advanced-technology fields that drive the nation's economy.

During the spring, students will attend a series of workshops focused on developing their entrepreneurship skills. Working in teams, students will identify a problem, ideate potential solutions, and learn to conduct basic market research. Workshops will begin on March 23, 2023. 

After students complete their entrepreneurship training, teams will have identified a specific solution that they will develop into a product. During the first month of summer, teams will be in residence at the lab full-time learning the skills to build a product prototype. Simultaneously, students will create and polish a pitch to explain their ideas to an audience

At the end of their term of residence at the lab, student teams will conduct formal pitch presentations for an audience of regional industry representatives and entrepreneurs. The pitch event will take place on June 16, 2023.