Innovation is not limited to the for-profit sector.  Omaha’s colleges are both reacting to social changes and trying to lead those changes, through a variety of new initiatives.

Researching Human Capital at Bellevue University

The Human Capital Lab at Bellevue University measures the impact of corporate investments in employee learning.

Mike Echols is Bellevue’s executive vice president of strategic initiatives, and the Lab’s director. He learned about showing the benefits of an investment while working as a General Electric executive.

“I knew that if I couldn’t show the benefit, I couldn’t get capital,” Echols said. “My interest here is what will convinceΩexecutives to spend money to educate employees. They need to know what they are getting.”

Echols persuaded his Board of Directors to create the Human Capital Lab in 2007, with a mission to conduct research, spread knowledge, and benefit the community.

Researchers recently completed the first phase of a project for Verizon Wireless called “Recruit/Develop.” Echols said this research will help Verizon determine whether to recruit people with a certain education, or to provide that education to current employees.

“We’ve studied several thousand of Verizon’s employees,” Echols said. “We worked on the first phase for a year, and the results were remarkable.”

Lab researchers will now expand this proprietary work to involve other companies, according to Echols, and then will publish their findings.

Past examples of Human Capital Lab research include measuring the impact of Con-Agra’s leadership development program, and calculating the return on investment for sales management training by Chrysler.

“All of our research is practical, targeted at impacting individuals and organizations,” Echols said. “We look like an entrepreneurial enterprise. If we are not successful, we don’t survive.”

The Lab also sponsors a series of events called the Quarterly Colloquia, bringing together local and national business leaders and researchers in the human capital field.

The Human Capital Lab is housed in Bellevue’s Lakeside Building in southwest Omaha. There are four staff people with backgrounds in research design, and they work with faculty members from the university’s Master’s and PhD programs in Human Capital.

Echols said the Lab helps Bellevue by forming partnerships with corporations. After research is conducted, those corporations may turn to the University to co-design academic programs for employees. Programs meet all academic requirements.

“For example, we have a co-branded Bellevue University/Home Depot web site, and their employees can earn their degrees here online,” Echols said.

Echols said the Lab also benefits Omaha by bringing national tuition dollars to the local economy, and by representing the area in a positive manner to leading corporations.

Anyone may sign up to receive the Innovation@Work newsletter at Newsletter recipients can read about the Lab’s research and register for its quarterly events.

“We are about transforming the educational model,” Echols said. “We are far more known and have a more visible presence nationally than in Omaha. It’s a gem for this community.”

Technology-Driven Classrooms at UNO

Relocation has allowed the College of Education at University of Nebraska-Omaha to integrate technology into the student experience.

UNO’s College of Business Administration moved to the new Mammel Hall this year, and the College of Education moved into Roskens Hall, which formerly housed Business.

According to Nancy Edick, dean of the College of Education, her programs gained 30,000 square feet and the opportunity to help shape the $13.7 million renovation.

“We designed this space so you are learning about good teaching and learning everywhere, even as you walk down the halls,” Edick said.

Each classroom has a different feel and layout. Edick said furniture is designed to be mobile, so students can work more easily in large and small groups.

In addition, the rooms do not have a single “head wall,” which is the front wall where the professor stands and the students face in a traditional classroom.

“Learning is all around you,” Edick said. “You don’t face one single direction, but are learning in a more circular environment.”

The most unusual space in the new Roskens Hall might be the IDEAS Room. “IDEAS” is an acronym for innovation, design, engagement, activity, and synergy.

According to Edick, it’s a media-centered room that goes well beyond whiteboards. Features include laptops, Flip cameras, clickers, smart boards, and even a green room for creating video.

“We also have a Mediascape collaboration table,” Edick said. “It allows up to eight people to be hooked into two computer screens at the same time. Each person can quickly project from their laptop onto a screen.”

Faculty members and students partnered with Holland Basham architects in designing the new space, based on past experience and best practices research.

“It’s one thing to talk about collaboration between students, faculty members, and the community, but it’s another thing to actually do it,” Edick said. “We know how much the environment affects learning. Now we have an environment that impacts that learning.”

While students are the main beneficiaries, Edick said the redesigned space will also help UNO to serve the community.

The new Roskens Hall will allow for more community outreach with local schools, businesses, and other types of organizations.

“I was a student at UNO, and one of the major changes from then is the amount of interaction and collaboration that exists in our program,” Edick said. “We are not an ivory tower sitting alone on Dodge Street.”

Teaching Entrepreneurship at Metro Community College

Metropolitan Community College has been teaching entrepreneurship courses for five years, but now it is spreading concepts about business creation far and wide.

About 1,000 students are currently taking courses in Metro’s Entrepreneurship program, according to director Heather Nelson, making it one of the College’s fastest-growing programs.

“We opened our door with very little marketing and budget,” Nelson said. “The topic of entrepreneurial education is so wanted by students. We just put the classes in the catalog, and students came.”

Despite this success, Nelson felt the program could do more.

“We realized quickly that are only reaching 1,000 of Metro’s 40,000 students,” she said. “All of the other students don’t have the time to take an entrepreneurship class right now, or their degree path won’t allow it.”

The Faculty Champions Program was created to help these other students. It offers entrepreneurial training to Metro’s 200 instructors in other disciplines.

Faculty Champions was first offered last summer, according to Nelson, consisting of three workshops. Faculty members were paired with local entrepreneurs from their discipline. For example, a photography instructor worked with a photographer on incorporating business skills into the classroom.

Twenty faculty members completed the initial sessions, and a second round will be offered in summer 2012.

Since the training was completed, Nelson has been pleased with the next steps taken by those faculty members

For example, an instructor in philosophy and ethics initially struggled with integrating business ideas into the curriculum.

“She decided to focus on social entrepreneurship,” Nelson said. “Her students raised money by selling food, and they took their profit from their class business and funded businesses around the world through”

Their proceeds were used to purchase goats and cows for several budding female entrepreneurs in Africa.

Nelson made a presentation last year about the program at a conference of the National Association of Community College Entrepreneurs. Afterward, she was approached by representatives of the Illinois-based Coleman Foundation, who were interested in creating a similar program nationwide.

Through funding from the Coleman Foundation, Nelson is currently working on making her curriculum available to community college faculty members in all 50 states.

That presentation was a fruitful one for Nelson, because she was also contacted about taking Metro’s ideas internationally.

“There were two people from England there,” Nelson said, “and they invited us to take this to London.”

In March, Nelson and Tim Mittan from Southeast Community College in Lincoln will give a two-day training session in “how to teach entrepreneurially” for 30 faculty members from around the United Kingdom. Their trip is being funding by the U.K. government.

This is all part of Metro’s plan to spread entrepreneurial ideas beyond business students to Omaha and the world.

“When we first launched, we realized that entrepreneurship cannot be measured by diplomas,” Nelson said. “It must be measured by how many people you touch. We want to measure by how many are opening businesses, and how much job creation is going on.”

Interdisciplinary Education at Creighton University

The Bioscience Entrepreneurship program at Creighton University is what’s known as an “interdisciplinary program.”  It combines courses and concepts from business, law, medicine, and science into something new.

In the process of creating and running this program, Anne York has learned about both the promise and the challenge of innovation in higher education.

“When I came to Creighton, I realized it has a unique niche because we have a medical school, a law school, a business school, and a full range of hard sciences,” York said. “Not all private universities have those. I thought we should leverage that combination.”

The Bioscience Entrepreneurship program began in 2008 with a $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

It is a year-long sequence of courses in law, business, medicine, and science. Students learn about the technology necessary for breakthroughs, and about how to write business plans that turn those ideas into a commercial venture.

“Law and medical students can take very few outside hours,” York said. “We couldn’t afford to do a major or a minor; it had to be short. That’s why it’s a certificate program.”

Most participants are graduate students in business, law, or medicine, but the program does accept some senior undergraduate business and science majors. The original grant was for 12 students, but there have been as many as 16 in some semesters.

York said boundaries between professional disciplines are collapsing in the working world, creating a need for this kind of education.

“In bioscience today, you have chemists, biologists, businesspeople, technology, lawyers, engineers,” York said. “You’ve got to have all of these pieces to commercialize technology. To get these things to market, you have to start cooperating.”

One benefit is that students discover how to “speak each other’s languages,” according to York. Medical students learn how to talk with businesspeople, and scientists learn about working with lawyers. A few students have even changed their career direction as a result of being exposed to outside ideas.

“This is the future in the business community,” York said. “They are realizing it adds a dimension to their education. It gets everybody out of their comfort zone. It’s challenging. It’s a big change, and not everyone makes it through for that reason.”

The challenges in interdisciplinary education are not limited to students. York said developing this kind of program is more complex than traditional higher education work. The experience inspired her to take a year-long sabbatical from her job to write a book on educational innovation.

“To be innovative across disciplines is so difficult in higher education, and I wanted to understand why,” York said.

York is currently interviewing the deans of leading business schools, talking in depth about the innovation process and how it can be made easier.

Much of American higher education is based on an old model developed by Harvard University, according to York. The major focus of Harvard has always been on research, rather than on teaching undergraduates, but York says this model is unsustainable for most colleges.

“Universities have tried to be like Harvard, but that research is very expensive. Most private universities don’t have those resources,” York said.

York is currently in the midst of her research. However, she has already learned from the nation’s business school deans that senior leadership is one critical component.

It is nearly impossible for colleges to engage in successful disruptive innovation without strong support from presidents and boards of directors.

“Leadership has to be courageous, because there will be a lot of resistance to changing things,” York said. “You need to have some personal risk at stake. Innovation is hard anywhere, and it’s particularly hard in higher education.”

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