To EXPLORE staff-student collaborations, to seek out new ideas and new innovations

How does a university promote collaborations between students and staff to stimulate innovation? In a joint effort between the Vice President for Innovation and Performance at NUI Galway and the NUI Galway Students’ Union, the EXPLORE Innovation Initiative at NUI Galway has funded 38 student-staff projects since it began in January 2012. The projects each receive €1000 of funding from the initiative to deliver innovation that will benefit the university or the wider community in the area. Some of these projects include creating a locator app for cardiac defibrillators (AEDs) in the west of Ireland, building bilingual video-based teaching aids for school students, running a regular student-entrepreneur technology meetup in Galway City, and many more.

“There are just under 20,000 staff and students at NUI Galway and students account for 86% of this figure”, says Prof. Chris Curtin, Vice President for Innovation and Performance. “We know that students at all stages of their studies, together with the know-how of staff, can create an innovative culture on campus.

“NUI Galway and the Students’ Union have joined forces to introduce a new model for students and staff to work together to bring about positive and transformative change at the university.”

So what has been the actual impact of EXPLORE? In terms of staff-student involvement, over 215 staff and students have participated in creating and running the projects. As regards impact on the community, the numbers are in their thousands, directly or indirectly.

For example, the Cell Explorers project – run by Dr. Muriel Grenon and nearly 20 student partners at NUI Galway – had 200 children and parents taking part in their show at the Galway Science and Technology Festival, and also had 500 primary school children plus their teachers and parents participating in their biological and biomedical outreach programme.

The Exponential series of tech entrepreneur talks (previously covered on Technology Voice) has given over 300 participants the opportunity to learn from six of Ireland’s top technology leaders in a casual setting. The Video Lab YouTube channel of easy-to-follow chemistry lab demonstrations has had over 2,500 views since it launched in February 2012.

“EXPLORE breaks down traditional hierarchies in the university environment that can stand in the way of innovation and treats the entire campus population as active innovators”, according to Paul Curley, the President of NUI Galway Students’ Union. “We are seeing that when students and staff combine their wealth of expertise in new ways it can have very powerful results.

“EXPLORE’s far-reaching contribution to not only campus life, but also to the wider community, is to be applauded.”

The project areas for EXPLORE projects are wide ranging, including technology, science outreach, the arts, environment, health, employability and mentoring, teaching and learning, and skills development.

“Staff and students are equally enthusiastic about their involvement in EXPLORE”, says Amber Walsh Olesen, EXPLORE coordinator. “Student participants have developed valuable transferable skills within the areas of teamwork, leadership, project management and communication capabilities, and have bolstered their CVs with hands-on experience. In fact, some students have already secured jobs and summer internships as a result of their EXPLORE projects.

“Staff see EXPLORE as a way to pilot new ideas in a low-risk environment, to collaborate with undergraduate students, and obtain new skills, particularly within the area of digital media.”

A current EXPLORE project aims to build a high-performance computing cluster from used laptops. According to student partner Finn Krewer, “Supercomputers are big, expensive and need a lot of electricity. With this project we aim to acquire used laptops from students who are upgrading their laptops. We will then connect between 10 and 30 laptops together to form a small low energy computing cluster.”

EXPLORE is a first for Irish universities and has been inspired by similar efforts abroad. The goal is to establish a permanent fund for this initiative beyond 2013. To boldly go where no one has gone before.

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