Boot Camps and Bold Experiments
The “Valley of Death” is a term for the yawning gap between successful research and creation of a marketable product. Government pays for the research, but unless an agency, such as the Pentagon, sees a potential use, it may never leave the lab. The researcher’s reward is published articles, a growing reputation, and the next grant. Few shake the bushes for private investors, who in any case shy away from early-stage development. Subra Suresh, as director of the National Science Foundation in 2011, launched Innovation Corps (I-Corps) to extract “considerable further value” from the government’s investment. Researchers would enter “boot camp” to learn the basics of marketing, and then scout potential customers to find out if there was, in fact, a market. Suresh had to tread carefully so as not to compromise NSF’s proud fundamental research role. And some members of Congress were wary of the government’s picking commercial “winners and losers.” Three years later, the jury is still out on whether successful enterprises will emerge, but there are promising signs, as Tom Grose writes in our cover story. Quite a few research-based ventures have qualified for the government’s Small Business Innovation Research program, and some have attracted private capital. For the researchers themselves, boot camp alone was an eye-opener.
Jacquelyn Sullivan has likewise found a void and proceeded to fill it. In her case, it’s the paucity of K-12 teachers with a solid grounding in engineering. Her solution: imbue engineering graduates with teaching skills. The hard part was making it work, and here’s where Sullivan, co-director of the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s engineering school, displayed some deft academic (and political) footwork, as Mary Lord recounts. Ordinarily, it would take six years for a student to pack in all the courses needed for a joint engineering and education degree. Working with CU’s education college, Sullivan pared the program down to four years, retaining sufficient substance to win approval from department chairs and the Colorado regents. The result will be a corps of teachers with an engineering degree that CU stands behind and, one hopes, the start of a new era in K-12 STEM education.
We hope you like the December Prism. Enjoy the holiday season.