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Exploring risky ideas

Colleen Bushell
SPIN Project Manager

NCSA’s pilot program, SPIN: Students Pushing INnovation, concluded in May with seven of the undergraduate students presenting the results of their semester-long fellowships. These diverse students successfully demonstrated that they could bring unique concepts to fruition when given the freedom to pursue their own ideas, combined with coaching from experienced NCSA mentors.

The program was initiated by several NCSA staff who have all witnessed powerful contributions from undergraduate students in the past, and who wish to continue and encourage this tradition at Illinois. NCSA has always been in a unique position to provide students with practicum experience while also exposing them to challenges faced by many communities that use computation, such as physical and social sciences, humanities, fine and applied arts, business and engineering. Since NCSA’s establishment in 1986, self-motivated students have tackled these problems, sometimes resulting in breakthough technologies, and sometimes launching them into careers with the experience necessary to drive development and creativity. SPIN’s mission is to provide the infrastructure and cultural atmosphere to continually inspire and support innovative students.

Moving beyond the pilot semester, we are now expanding the program by integrating with multiple efforts and organizations across the University, extending fellowships to nine month appointments, and increasing the quantity and diverse breadth of students and mentors. Our intention is not to duplicate the excellent student innovation resources that are available, but to leverage those and focus on engaging students in high-performance computing efforts that touch so many disciplines. The updated structure of SPIN balances three aspects of the student’s fellowship to promote the development of creative ideas: inspiration, experimentation, and advancement.

Students are introduced to NCSA project areas and mentors through the SPIN website and recruiting events held early each fall semester. Interested students from any discipline on campus can apply for a fellowship by proposing a project that addresses a challenge described by an NCSA mentor. Some mentors will form a collaborative student group; others will seek individual students to participate in their project area. Through these projects, students will gain exposure to difficult challenges through projects and presentations, receive mentoring from computing and domain experts, and participate in interdisciplinary student workspaces and events.

A portion of the student’s fellowship is dedicated to exploring self-directed, potentially risky ideas. This is a conceptual sandbox (called SPINbox) for experimenting and testing concepts. Students are provided with coaching in concept development, iterative design, and risk-taking; communication techniques using visual representation, proof-of-concepts, and presentation design; and guidance in discovering their unique creative process while identifying and overcoming obstacles.

Members of the SPIN planning committee represent several relevant career experiences that are reflected in the SPIN mission. These combined experiences include faculty and research positions, institute leadership, administrative leadership, publically funded project work, privately funded commercial work, and the creation of successful NCSA spin-off companies.

Our experience has taught us that good ideas can die if they are not nurtured through many phases of development and promotion. It is our intention to help the students dedicate focused time to their ideas, and to not get derailed by tasks where we can assist. To help move their successful concepts forward, we provide:

  • financial support in the form of fellowships;
  • assistance with computing, programming and technical needs;
  • support with information design and user interface design needs;
  • connections to potential academic collaborators and resources;
  • promotion to potential commercial partners.

Students who participated in the pilot program offered guidance in the refinement of the SPIN program. Their diverse projects illustrate just a small slice of the research areas that can be addressed by future students. We are looking forward to meeting our next group of undergraduate fellows. They bring with them a sense of adventure and eagerness that is inspiring for all of us at NCSA who enjoy the unpredictable.

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