University Partnerships as an Engine for Global Innovation

Here’s the thing about innovation: it’s hard. It’s painstaking and risky. But it’s also necessary.

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), a private, nonprofit organization of the U.S.’s leading researchers and government advisors on issues relating to science, engineering and medicine, recently released a report entitled “Maintaining U.S. Leadership in Sciences and Technology,” indicating that the U.S. is in danger of losing its innovative edge.

Through university partnerships, we can create a better system for innovation to stave the problems our world is facing. And there is no lack of problems that will require creative and intelligent solutions.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) surveys people every year about the biggest problems facing the world. Among them this year? Climate change, large-scale cyberattacks and major biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse, just to name a few. These tremendous challenges are beyond our current capabilities alone; they will require expert contributions from emerging and future leaders. 

Tomorrow's minds, whose applications of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) can change the world and shape the future. This is critical to manufacturing. With significant impact on global economies and the environment, manufacturing could be the game-changing industry to address the world's many problems. But with labor shortages restraining manufacturing growth, according to Deloitte, they may also be hindering our ability to find viable solutions for the world.

How are we preparing the scientists, inventors, researchers and STEM leaders of the future to tackle these big problems and innovate?  

An Engine for Innovation

In his book, Organized Innovation, University of South Florida President Steve Currall discusses the flow of innovation, how it’s changed over the years and how it can be improved. 

Over the past few decades, research has increasingly been funded by private companies. The problem is that private industry-funded innovation is short-term, incremental innovation designed to improve existing commercial products. 

Federally funded research is what generally generates foundational knowledge for broader societal impact and still comprises roughly 25 percent of R&D expenditures. However, according to Currall, there isn’t enough input or collaboration between universities, government and private industry. His theory is that the most effective method of innovation involves cooperation between government, private companies and universities.

That is exactly what Jabil Scholars is. The program, which is looking to expand in the future, currently consists of a partnership between the municipal government, Jabil and San Jose State University. Since 1992, Jabil has been working with professors at the university to pinpoint some of the most promising students in science and engineering. These students are invited to bring their skills and knowledge to the San Jose Customer Solutions Center and given access to the center’s labs as well as professional mentorship.

Jabil's short documentary, Learning to Fly, tells the story of the Jabil Scholars university partnership program in San Jose, highlighting its importance to the students, community, Jabil and the world. Watch it below. 

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Learning to Fly

This isn’t a typical internship program; there is no application process or specific assignments. Instead, students are given a topic that aligns with Jabil’s enterprise technology roadmaps and are allowed to develop their research within that topic at the Jabil facility. Still, their presence and research can have a tremendous impact on the future of the company and may even lead to future company projects and intellectual property. For example, three Scholar graduates will be presenting their research on metamaterials in Boston later this year alongside their Jabil mentor. They have also filed a patent for this work. 

For example, as a Jabil Scholar, Meha Gupta studied microfluidics and worked to develop a type of diagnostic testing that is cheap and portable. After joining the company as an intern, she continued working with Jabil engineers to develop her lab on-disc technology, hoping to take it to emerging markets or even just airports, enabling airport staff members to test passengers for certain diseases immediately.

Diversity is our Strength 

According to the Harvard Business Review, companies – especially large companies with competitive internship programs – tend to have an academic bias. When selecting interns, their priority is recruiting students from “core” schools, meaning Ivy League or high-caliber research universities. As a contingency, they turn to “target” schools, which are not regarded as highly as the core schools but still considered elite. Throughout the year, they try to woo these students with career fairs, and resumes marked “Harvard” or “Stanford” are placed at the very top of the pile. Meanwhile, resumes from students who do not attend core or target schools are often completely disregarded. Because it looks beyond just the top-tier research universities, Jabil Scholars breaks this status quo.

As the capital of Silicon Valley, the city of San Jose has enormous influence on the technology that will shape our future. According to the most recent census, San Jose is the tenth largest city in America as well as one of the most diverse. A third of citizens identify as Hispanic or Latino, and the city ranks on the top ten cities in America with the highest percentage of Asian-Americans. 

Jabil's first partner school, San Jose State University, reflects the diversity of the city. Recently named a top producer of Asian-American graduates by Diverse Issues in Higher Education, students of Asian heritage make up the largest racial group of both undergraduate and graduate/credential students. Latino/as comprise 27 percent of the overall student population while Caucasian students total 19 percent. The rich diversity of SJSU students translates to a more diverse and high-tech workforce for San Jose, Jabil and beyond. 

NAS recommends increasing workforce cultural diversity to improve innovation in a global economy. These students not only bring cultural diversity but are also representative of the “99 percent” that will be using the technology. They understand the problems and little annoyances that users face daily, which helps them in sparking ideas and creating solutions that address these needs.

Go Beyond the Classroom with Experiential Learning

In a 2018 analysis of more than 2,000 college classes in STEM, researchers at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln found that 55 percent of classroom interactions consisted mostly of conventional lecturing. The study, originally published in the journal Science, is the largest of its kind and monitored 550 faculty members in 700 courses across 25 institutions. While classroom interactions and theory are essential to the learning experience, they aren't enough. 

The answer? Going beyond the classroom with experiential learning. 

Research in neuroscience shows "that we learn most (and retain that learning as changed behavior) when the emotional circuits within our brain are activated. Visceral, lived experiences best activate these circuits; they prompt us to notice both things in the environment and what's going on inside ourselves," according to the Harvard Business Review.  

"Having an experiential learning experience is critical," states Michael Milligan, Executive Director and CEO of ABET (Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology). "It helps students be more intuitive about how they approach problems and make sense of the results." Students with this type of experience are better prepared to take on the world past graduation.

From a quality perspective, schools that are accredited by ABET are judged on the learning outcomes of their programs. ABET highlights the importance of teamwork, communication skills and a deep understanding of ethics and sustainability, which are all driven by industry. 

"We want innovation in STEM education," says Milligan, adding "Experiential learning and project-based learning are just examples of innovation we encourage. The programs at the forefront can really see the innovation and try different things up front." 

This also opens up the opportunity to apply creativity. “As part of the innovation process, we encourage students to reach beyond STEM through creative problem-solving,” said Quyen Chu, Jabil’s director of engineering services and head of the Scholars program. "We call it 'creative solutioning.'" Creative solutioning means going beyond math and science. In fact, as a nod to the role that the arts play in innovation, the Jabil Scholars team likes to think in terms of STEAM rather than STEM, where the "A" represents the arts.

A Pathway for Corporate and Individual Success

Harjeet Hansi is one of many students who went through Jabil Scholars. "I remember walking in through the doors, and I had no idea what Jabil was," he reminisces, "I just knew that they made stuff for other companies." 

On his first day, he walked in with hesitations as he didn't know what to expect. When he asked questions as simple as where to find work gloves, he was pleasantly surprised. Jabil employees not only showed him around the labs, they also took an interest in his project, approach and knowledge. "There was so much advice and so much love from the team; I just felt so welcome," says Hansi. 

Before the program, Hansi didn't quite know the direction he wanted to take with his career. "Two months prior to graduation, I just wanted a job. I didn't know where and I didn't know what I wanted to do. I just wanted something. It wasn't until the internship that I knew [engineering] was what I wanted to pursue." 

Now Hansi serves as a full-time associate engineer at Jabil, where his responsibilities include leading the incoming SJSU students, as part of the university partnership program. "I think it's really cool how I started off as a mentee in this Jabil project, and now I'm the mentor, and I get to teach these students what I learned and help them get to where I am today," he smiles.  

This is just one story about students who have gone through the program and gone on to pursue successful careers at Jabil. The university partnership has proven to be a valuable talent pipeline for the industry as well as provide rich experiences for students.

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How to Develop Effective Partnerships with Universities

The natural world is filled with examples of symbiotic relationships: the flower nourishes the honeybee with nectar, and the bee pollinates plants; the sea anemone shields the clownfish from predators while the clownfish keeps the anemone clean and healthy. In the corporate world, all successful partnerships provide benefits to both parties. 

The future will be shaped by the people with the passion, expertise and vision to take on some of our biggest global challenges. These individuals are in our universities, completing their education. Some are unaware of the potential within them. Therefore, it is up to companies to partner with universities to empower future leaders to create change. To ensure both parties are receiving maximum benefits requires a strong partnership strategy.

Here are some tips on creating an impactful university partnership:

1. Have an executive sponsor. Select an executive sponsor who will champion the program internally. Ideally, they need to have decision-making authority and should represent the types of individuals you want to attract to your company. Having a dedicated leader can make it easier to move initiatives forward. In Jabil's case, having an executive sponsor helped grow the program from nine to around 30 students.

2. View the program as an investment. The size or impact of your program doesn't just change with an executive sponsor; you need a budget as well. As with any company initiative, there should be an allotted budget dedicated to securing tools that will track your ROI. These types of initiatives are an investment for the future well-being of your company. It's about developing the type of talent that can propel your company or industry forward. Now that is a good investment. 

3. Build in meaningful work. The “internship market” is saturated with opportunities that require little more than making photocopies, fetching coffee and trudging through mundane work. Create a program that provides a challenge, teaches real-world skills and guides participants through each step. Give students the opportunity to innovate and develop their leadership skills. 

For many students, their curriculum is a "closed" experience, where syllabi are predetermined. But when it comes to a program such as the Jabil Scholars, SJSU's Dr. Folarin Erogbogbo has some advice. 

"The company doesn't necessarily have to come up with the ideas," he says. "They could give students a general topic area and let the students delve into it to come up with something of interest." From there, students can create a statement of work and the company can guide them through. 

Past scholars have done work around heat exchangers, additive manufacturing with metal, flexible electronics and acoustic hyperlenses, all of which could be incorporated to existing projects for Jabil. 

"In school, [students] get really excited about the technology part of things but don't understand the criticality of prep-work. So I teach them how to do things like write statements of work and put together schedules and project plans," says Rosa Javadi, engineering services manager, who oversees the scholars.

"We are willing to integrate what we learn from [Jabil] into our curriculum. So now, all of our students' statements of work are similar to the ones done at the company. They are also able to incorporate some elements from our syllabi. It's an excellent synergy," adds Erogbogbo. 

4. Make it part of your culture. Having your team buy into the academic partnerships is an important step. As I mentioned earlier, Hanjeet felt welcomed by the Jabil employees right from the start, because they made him feel a part of the team. Creating this type of environment for all participants will ensure the long-term success and build a community that students will be excited to return to when considering job offers. This can make the difference between a shy, hesitant student and a motivated powerhouse. 

5. Take small steps for a big payoff. This is where things come full-circle. If we are determined to solve the world's most challenging problems, we need to start small. In this case, making a difference in your local community can go a long way. Not only does this provide the opportunity to initiate a pilot program, it gives you the framework to scale to global partnerships, just like Jabil Scholars aims to expand the program.

"The partnership between Jabil and San Jose State University is particularly unique. We're thrilled that Jabil continues to promote this partnership... We want to continue to grow partnerships like this with other companies, using Jabil as an example," says San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. 

"It's a great benefit to our community as Jabil works to help us broaden the talent pipeline," he adds, reflecting on the impact the program has had in the local community. And as it matures and similar university partnerships develop, who knows? It may end up being the global engine for innovation we all need.