Rapid Innovation Course Gives Students Professional Experience Dealing with Challenging Issues

Posted: September 28, 2021
Rapid Innovation

On a typical day at the John Glenn School of Public Affairs, cross-functional teams of Ohio State students are tackling some of the country’s most challenging issues: human trafficking, gerrymandered Congressional districts, a drone policy for national intelligence, and data monitoring for pandemic decision-making to name just a few.

It’s all part of the Rapid Innovation for Public Impact course being taught by Dr. Liz Newton, ISE associate professor of practice and executive director of Ohio State Battelle Center for Science, Engineering, and Public Policy.

The program began in the spring of 2019 and has been tackling problems head-on that are sourced from government agencies and nonprofit organizations. Dr. Newton offers the class to upper-level undergraduates and graduate students, but without any pre-requisites or barriers preventing them from enrolling. As a result, teams include students who have engineering, design, medical, business, policy, public health, and even veterinary school backgrounds. The idea is to get as much talent diversity as possible for the problem-solving process, and as the course advertises “solving real problems for real public agencies in real time.”

It’s just the kind of program Dr. Newton was hoping to start when she came to Ohio State in 2016. She was looking to arm students with the kind of strategies and tools necessary to solve problems in professional settings. “This generation needs to have these skills,” she says. “There’s no place to go and get these – design thinking, strategic thinking, and business acumen all at once.”

She says the course fits well within the Glenn College’s purview of fostering public service. Additionally, the Glenn College sometimes collaborates with Hacking for Defense, a program sponsored by the Department of Defense in which students work on issues of national security.

Rapid Innovation

The initial Rapid Innovation for Public Impact course attracted students via fliers posted on campus, information sessions and word of mouth. “I was hoping for a minimum of 12 students and the first semester we had 20 and I said, ‘OK, we hit a nerve,’” Newton recalls. “It’s an opportunity for students to do real problems.”

Since then, student testimonials have drawn others to sign up. One student called it a “life-changing course.” Part of the reason for that assessment is the fact that many of the students are hired by the agencies that sponsor class projects. “Just in general, it’s a professional on-ramp,” Newton says.

Classes now number dozens of students per semester with teams of four students tackling the challenges. “It’s run like a professional assignment,” Dr. Newton says. “We watch them every single week for progress.”

“Wicked” problems are sourced through various agencies with the students interviewing stakeholders, sponsors and subject matter experts “to fully understand the problem they are trying to solve,” says Ethan Rivera, communications and marketing coordinator for Battelle Center.

Dr. Newton says the students perform as cross-functional tiger teams emulating professional assignments in an inverted classroom approach. “Every other week they’re briefing us,” she says.

The teams are held accountable and have a rigorous schedule to provide deliverables. The briefings offer opportunities for assigned mentors – including some retired military volunteers – to coach the teams and keep them on track.

The 4-credit hour course culminates with a proof-of-concept solution or minimum viable product (MVP), which is presented to the sponsor, who can choose to adopt or reject it.

“These MVPs have ranged from suggested policy reform, written codes/algorithms for machine learning, the formation of an integrated application, and even the finding of hardware required for better outcomes,” Rivera says. “Students gain a lot of valuable skills and also get to make a real impact on the world through these challenges. They learn how to fail fast and innovate faster, using their hypothesis testing as a way to learn even more about how to help and continue to improve their ideas or even pivot away from them to search for new answers.”

ISE Students Tackle ‘Wicked’ Problems, Find Solutions

Rapid Innovation

Dr. Elizabeth Newton, ISE associate professor and director of Battelle Center for Science, Engineering and Public Policy, says ISE students are particularly well-suited to tackle some of the problems presented in the Rapid Innovation for Public Impact course.

Since its inception in spring 2019, 16 ISE students have taken part in working on the following team challenges:

  • No Surprises: Quickly and quantitatively weighing the importance of new information before disruptive technology shows up on a foreign launchpad or runway;
  • Buckeye Choppers: Improving helicopter maintenance management to ensure successful naval missions;
  • Space Junkies: Deconstructing electronics modules for space-based applications;
  • Feed the Need: Identifying critical populations and needs to address food insecurity and hunger;
  • Isolated Personnel: Devising new methods for locating and identifying isolated personnel in harsh environments;
  • A.R.I.A. – Preventing human trafficking in Appalachian Ohio by predicting vulnerable populations;
  • SITRREP’D – Incorporating new environmental monitoring data into the decision-making of the Ohio Department of Health and COVID Comprehensive Monitoring Team; and
  • Arrows in the Quiver: Developing public policy and a communication strategy for authorized counter-UAS operations on domestic soil.


Story by Nancy Richison

Categories: FacultyStudent