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If the future of higher education were up to Garret Westlake, it would be about “taking risks, not tests.” Happily, in his position as Executive Director of the VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation, Westlake stands a good chance of making that happen.

Case in point: A da Vinci student recently approached Westlake with an idea for an independent study project involving creating an app and getting it on app stores. Mid-semester Apple suddenly changed its system and the student’s app was denied. They were crushed. Westlake explained that failing early is a gift, it pushes you to keep iterating and pivoting.

“There is no substitute for introducing students to the real world. They need to learn to work with everyone, not be sheltered in a classroom. It’s all about the risks you take and the support you get along the way.”

Design Thinking

This insistence on real-world experience was Westlake’s theme at a recent Encorepreneur virtual breakfast meeting on Zoom. Story after story bore him out. There was the da Vinci Center’s success in producing masks when VCU Health called in March 2020 to report a potential shortage. “Entrepreneurs fall in love with problems, not solutions,” said Westlake. “They can’t help it.” In the instance of the masks, the Center employed “design thinking” to step back from the initial ask and come up with an innovative answer: clean and repurpose the existing masks.

Keys to the Future

At VCU, the da Vinci Center is a collaboration of VCU’s School of Arts, Business, the Colleges of Engineering and Humanities and Sciences and VCU Health. Together they are focused on improving today’s academic experience. “To do this, we’ve got to do better at creating programs that meet the needs of our end users.” How? Westlake is on it. “Optimize and innovate. Look beyond those traditionally served. Learn from prototypes and scale the things that are proven to work.” The da Vinci Center’s Master of Product Innovation is one example where Westlake stresses the importance of cross-disciplinary degree programs that empower students with cutting edge tools and pair them with real world partners and projects. Applications are open for Summer and Fall.

In fact, VCU is already on the forefront of real-world education with its SHIFT Retail Lab. This is a beautiful new space for budding entrepreneurs to test their ideas through sales and customer feedback. Students have a month-long “shelf opportunity,” during which time they personally pocket any profits from the sale of their products. VCU has launched a fundraising campaign to support student entrepreneurs participating in the SHIFT Retail Lab.

Westlake is proud of VCU’s culture of innovation and hopes to inspire other institutions to adopt design thinking and innovation to meet the dynamic needs of students in the years ahead.  “Blockbuster Video missed an opportunity to adapt to a digital world” he warns, “and look where that got them. At some point your industry will be faced with a choice, and higher education is at risk without a greater reliance on empathy for end users, innovation, and bold leadership.”

No worries. The da Vinci Center is prototyping the future of higher education.

View the Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Academics presentation


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