Iowa State takes innovation program around the world

Students presenting

International high school students participated in Iowa State's Innovation Fellows-in-Training program at the world expo in Dubai in December. Photos provided by Jorge Calderon.

AMES, Iowa — An education in innovation begins before a student even steps foot on Iowa State University’s campus.

That’s the idea behind a new recruitment program led by the Student Innovation Center’s Innovation Fellows Program and the Office of Admissions.

In 2020, admissions counselors sought new ways to connect with prospective international students. Virtual recruitment fairs featured hundreds of universities, most of which got lost in the hubbub. And because some students left their video cameras off during presentations, it made it difficult to establish a personal connection.

Admissions connected with Karen Kerns, director of innovation programs at Iowa State, to develop a virtual international program – Innovation Fellows-in-Training (I-FiT) – which gives high school students from around the world an opportunity to participate in themed innovation competitions and learn more about how innovation and entrepreneurship skills are key to an ISU education. The program was piloted in December 2020 and expanded throughout the past year.

“The I-FiT program has had unanticipated interest: 1,200 students enrolled in its first year,” Kerns said. “These intensive innovation workshops and challenges show high school students that no matter how old they are, they can and will make a difference in the world, starting with their own communities.”

To date, students from 26 countries have participated in I-FiT challenges. Each challenge consists of a themed workshop led by ISU faculty and students. “APPtitude” challenged students to create a phone application. Students had 30 minutes to create a script and video performance in “Global Theater Festival.” Another event, “Change Your World,” asked students to develop something that would have a social impact on their community.

Today, international freshman applications are at historically high levels, says Jorge Calderon, associate director of international recruiting in the Office of Admissions.

“We can’t necessarily pinpoint yet that an increase in international applicants is only the product of this, because we do a ton of different things,” he said. “But I do believe this plays a big part in our success. At least now when a recruiter meets with students, many have already heard of Iowa State.”

Learning how to innovate

The most recent I-FiT workshop – and the first to take place in person – was at the Expo 2020 Dubai this past December. Forty high-schoolers from the United Arab Emirates participated in the two-day workshop at the USA pavilion (fittingly focused on innovation).

Octavia Grimes, sophomore in industrial engineering from Bayside, Wisconsin, was an innovation fellow her first semester at Iowa State, in fall 2020. She was invited to travel to Dubai to help lead the I-FiT workshop alongside Ana Luz, director of innovation and entrepreneurship in the College of Design.

High-schoolers were given a broad prompt to design the school of the future. Their ideas ran the gamut: inclusivity in schools, incorporating nature, how technology and online education will evolve, creating a lesson plan, building a classroom and more. At the end of the event, the student teams presented their ideas and received feedback from ISU faculty on-site and virtually.

Grimes and Luz taught the students about the engineering and design processes, how they differ and how each can help people innovate, collaborate and create.

“I’ve only had one lab in person since starting at Iowa State and I only had three group members,” said Grimes, who started at Iowa State near the beginning of the pandemic. “There are so many other people I’d love to meet and work with. Being able to meet the students participating in the I-FiT challenge opened me up to new experiences.”