Facilitating Cross-Disciplinary Learning from Entrepreneurial Inter-Disciplinary Projects
November 19–20, 2020
Colleges can adapt curricula to address community projects. Disciplines can be adjusted to accommodate the cross-disciplinary dimensions of other disciplines. Critically, colleges can engage students from different disciplines on entrepreneurial projects to address community concerns. Colleges can enhance curricular innovation by integrating students from a diversity of multi-disciplinary perspectives and schools to address societal problems. Curious, cross-disciplinary students have exceptional learning experiences through these projects.
Concept of program
The community engagement course of the authors/presenters is a continuing three-credit cross-disciplinary program at Pace University for engaging entrepreneurial students to address diverse issues.
The diversity of the students is the focus of the program, which draws students from different disciplines and schools into project teams. Though the program is housed in a school of computer science and information systems, the program, as in industry (Gompers & Kovvali, 2018), is a deliberate inclusion of a diversity of business, information systems, and liberal arts students in multi-disciplinary projects and self-directed teams. The goal of the program is for students to learn multiple perspectives, reflecting the diversity of students (Hewlett & Yoshino, 2016), in order to address societal issues on the teams.
This focus of the program during the pandemic summer and fall of 2020 was reflected in its demographics: six African-American, eight American Caucasian, three Asian-American, three Hispanic-American, and two European students. In terms of disciplines, the program included nine business, eight computer science and information systems, and five liberal arts students. The diversity of genders in the program included 11 female, nine male and two non-identified students of the university. In terms of diversity of student college experience, students included one freshman, nine sophomores, eight juniors, and four senior students. The 22 students were grouped into mostly-four-member, self-directed project teams.
The design of the program is for the professor to function as a mentor to the students of the self-directed teams.
The professor guides the students on the methods to be used on the projects and on the multiple perspectives to be learned from the other students, in order for them to be entrepreneurially inclusive and innovative on the projects. Importantly, the professor is not a lecturer but a mentor to the students on the teams. The professor, as a moralist (Sanderson, 2020), is motivating both performing students and, as appropriate, non-performing students to be activists in developing societal solutions on their teams.
The program is influenced by methodology learned by the first and second authors/presenters at a previous Faculty Resource Network Symposium (DiYanni, 2018).
Dimensions of program
The community engagement projects are consensually decided by the members of the self-directed teams, in concurrence with the professor.
The dimensions of the projects in the summer/fall 2020 semester are cross-disciplinary and included an application (app) for animal care for aging adults, an app for care for neighborhood people in poverty, an app for changing climate conditions, an app design for a clothing closet customized to consumers, an app design for coronavirus infections and general wellness, a digital metrocard for disabled low-income people, and a food recipe system for avoiding waste akin to futuristic innovation projects (Norman, 2007).
The program is focused on entrepreneurial pseudo-project proposals, but the proposals are for attempting real societal stakeholder solutions, as in other community engagement programs (Cress et al., 2013). The projects are not frequently programming projects of technology, as the non-information systems students are informed by other interests (Chatterjee, & Monroe, 2020) than those of the information systems students on the teams.
The objective of the projects is for teams to develop 30-minute pitch presentations for funding of their solutions and present them to potential pseudo venture capitalists (i.e. other professors and students of the university), as if in Silicon Valley (Dorsey, 2020).
The guidelines for the pitch presentations conform to customized methodology for agile projects in industry (Denning, 2018). According to the guidelines, the presentations should include:
- Name of student entrepreneur team;
- Names of team members;
- Member organizational positions on team;
- Name of product solution of team;
- Preliminary 10-second elevator pitch for product solution;
- Abstract of product solution;
- Key definitions of product solution;
- Client competitor industry market;
- Client needs stakeholder statements;
- Client needs stakeholder instrument of subject(s) survey;
- Client needs stakeholder results of subject(s) surveys;
- Publication referenced research sources on subjects;
- Product scenario(s) stakeholder storyboarding;
- Product prototyping of scenario(s) stakeholder solution;
- Financial benefit(s) projections from solution (Year 1 – Year 3);
- Non-financial benefit(s) projections from solution;
- Final 30-second elevator pitch for product solution;
- Final value proposition for product solution of team; and
- Funding request (seed) for product solution of team for Year 1.
Apart from the 10-second and 30-second elevator pitches, the value propositions, and the funding requests, the pitch presentations are especially exciting in highlighting the storyboarding and the prototyping of the projects. Storyboarding is an approach to depicting and iterating product scenarios (i.e. sequences) in the form of client stakeholder stories, and to describing product solutions in stories with graphic narrative tools. Prototyping is an approach to discussing the product scenarios (i.e. steps) in these stories, and explaining distinct features of product solutions in the stories with illustrative simulations or technology tools.
The students use scholarly research to develop their storyboards and prototype, as well as input from stakeholders gathered through surveys (Polonsky & Waller, 2011).
The prototypes are often of applications (app) that would solve a societal problem through technology. These solutions are informed by the perspectives not only of information systems students, but also of multidisciplinary, non-information-systems students, which allows them to be more holistic solutions with real transformative potential (Kane et al., 2019).
The guidelines for the community engagement projects are a continuance of the design factory methodology (Bjorklund, Laakso, Kirjavainen, & Ekman, 2017), and of the pitch presentation standards (Alley, 2013), of pre-pandemic semesters involving an aggregate of 69 students since 2018, similar to the new 22 undergraduate students of summer/fall 2020.
Projects from the prior semesters included, for example, an app for a book discounted-exchange funding operation, an app for a concert management operation, an app design for a co-op food mart for homeless people, a cultural multi-media museum for disabled people, a fingerprint in-house scanner security system, a homeless meal service system, and a minority-owned partnership restaurant—again akin to projects for community stakeholders (Lang, 2020).
Though the projects in pandemic summer/fall 2020 were not feasible in in-person teams, the students were performing civically and productively, as previous semester students, in breakout and general sessions on zoom. The students of the university were successfully performing contractual, deliverable tasks in their self-directed teams, as the previous semester students. Finally, the professor monitored the projects through incremental weekly reports provided by individual students and teams.
Lessons learned from program
Faculty can benefit from the following lessons learned on the cross-disciplinary entrepreneurial projects of the presenters/authors:
- The cross-disciplinary diversity of the teams contributed to holistically expanded interdisciplinary projects that would not have been achievable on more insular projects by students within single schools. The diversity exercises initiated by the professor at the beginning of the semester enabled this result.
- Student participants majoring in finance from the Lubin School of Business contributed to credible financial product propositions in the projects, in a manner not initially understood or implementible by the non-business members of the teams.
- Engagement of members majoring in communications, and even dance and entertainment, from the Dyson School of Arts and Sciences contributed to effective, festive, and highly persuasive pitch presentations of the projects, in a manner not practiced initially by non-liberal arts students of the teams.
- Engagement of member students majoring in information systems from the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems enabled functional innovative projects integrating intermediate technologies, in a manner that involved non-information systems students who were not previously proficient with the tools.
- Formation of the self-directed teams by the professor to foster demographic, disciplinary, gender, and year-of-matriculation inclusiveness enabled students to develop informed perspectives as they produced projects for multiple population stakeholders.
- Management of the projects by members of the self-directed teams was facilitated by guidelines for the projects provided by the professor at the beginning of the semester; by contractual deliverable documented tasks initiated mid-semester by the students; and by pitch presentation standards initiated mid-semester by the professor.
- Management of the projects by the self-directed teams was not generally hindered in the pandemic semester by the multiple digital resources and student tools on zoom.
- The professor as mentor was involved more in motivating students, notably non-performing students, and teams than in pre-pandemic semesters.
- Students were involved more in their groups by the preparatory processes of production, including storyboarding and prototyping, often extending their work into personal time (both of students and professor).
- Students reflected more often than in pre-pandemic semesters on the progress of their projects on their teams, through weekly blog and journal postings on a discussion board on the Blackboard learning system of the university.
Lessons learned on the entrepreneurial projects in pandemic summer/fall 2020 can be fruitfully applied to other interdisciplinary projects conducted by professors at other schools.
Reflections of students on program
The outcomes of the entrepreneurial projects are denoted in the positive reflections from focus groups (Stewart & Shamdasani, 2015) of the students in summer/fall 2020, as in the below sample of student comments:
Able to come to class with enthusiasm … Any student desiring to grow in a diverse group [of students] needs to be in this [program] … How big the professor was on diversityKC (Business Student)
Definitely nervous [at the beginning of the program] at the diversity … Exceeded my expectations … Learned multiple perspectives … Pleasantly surprisedMH (Liberal Arts Student)
Empowering experience … Project [not feasible] without this diverse dream team … Things are possible when great minds are put [to the task] … Will recommend to other studentsRK (Information Systems Student)
Had a lot of freedom on how to do [the project] … [Group] was in charge!NM (Business Student)
Independence I enjoyed the most … Reminded that there are far greater problems in this world than my own insecuritiesJR (Liberal Arts Student)
Colleges can apply this cross-disciplinary program to entrepreneurial projects. The methodology of the program induces diverse students to learn multi-disciplinary perspectives from other students. Concurrently, the program induces students to learn multi-disciplinary perspectives on opportunistic projects for societal stakeholders. Professors can introduce the practices of this program to their students. In short, this program can be pursued by professors and staff for transformative learning at their universities.
Alley, M. (2013). The craft of scientific presentations: Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid (2nd ed.). New York: Springer Science + Business Media.
Bjorklund, T.A., Laakso, M., Kirjavainen, S., & Ekman, K. (2017). Passion-based co-creation. Helsinki, Finland: Kirjapaino Bookcover, Aalto University.
Chatterjee, D., & Monroe, N. (2020). Marketing beyond the gender binary: Marketers must rethink gender to win the next generations of consumers. MIT Sloan Management Review, May 28, 1-8.
Cress, C.M., Collier, P.J., & Reitenauer, V.L. (2013). Learning through serving: A student guidebook for service-learning and civic engagement across academic disciplines and cultural communities. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
Denning, S. (2018). The age of agile. New York, New York: AMACOM Books.
DiYanni, R. (2018, November 16). Approaches to active learning: Sharing strategies for student engagement. Presentation at the New York University Faculty Resource Network National Symposium, Orlando, Florida.
Dorsey, S. (2020). These Black founders succeeded in spite of Silicon Valley, Wired, July 12, 1-9.
Gompers, P., & Kovvali, S. (2018). The other diversity dividend. Harvard Business Review, July-August, 1-10.
Hewlett, S.A., & Yoshino, K. (2016). LGBT-inclusive companies are better at 3 big things. Harvard Business Review, February 2, 1-4.
Kane, G.C., Phillips, A.N., Copulsky, J.R., & Andrus, G.R. (2019). The technology fallacy: How people are the real key to digital transformation. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Lang, C. (2020). Entrepreneurs of color are making the pandemic pivot. Time, September 21/28, 24.
Norman, D.A. (2007). The design of future things. New York, New York: Basic Books.
Polonsky, M.J., & Waller, D.S. (2011). Designing and managing a research project: A business student’s guide (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
Sanderson, C.A. (2020). Why we act: Turning bystanders into moral rebels. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Stewart, D.W., & Shamdasani, P.N. (2015). Focus groups: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications, Inc.
Resources for Further Study
MIT Technology Review
Entrepreneurship Education and Pedagogy
Industry and Higher Education
Journal of Social Entrepreneurship
Organizational Behavior and Human Design Processes
The Journal of Experimental Education
Spring 2021: Curriculum Innovation for Transformative Learning