The Change Agent
How engineering student Alexandra Seda is bringing Silicon Valley innovation to ONU.
Ohio Northern University’s College of Engineering seeks students who possess traits that are found in all good engineers—insight to see the answers to problems, and the grit and determination to see those answers applied in the real world. In junior Alexandra Seda, they have not only a student with those traits, but also a leader with the passion to inspire change.
The electrical engineering major from Columbiana, Ala., has always been interested in new things – new products, new ways of doing things, new ideas. She calls it a “knack for entrepreneurship,” and it’s one of the reasons she’s here at ONU. The College of Engineering’s connection to entrepreneurship through both the Dicke College of Business Administration and the Kern Family Foundation is the direction Seda looks when she sees her future self. For her, solving a problem isn’t enough. She wants to create solutions.
Dr. John David Yoder, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, thought of Seda when he learned of the University Innovation Fellows program (UIF) at the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, or Epicenter for short. Here was a new program dedicated to empowering students to become catalysts for change on their campuses by helping them develop an entrepreneurial mindset and creative confidence, two things it turns out Seda needed absolutely no help with. But it was the other things the program could offer her – tools, frameworks and program models that would help her focus her energy in ways that would yield real results—that he felt would benefit her. He asked her to apply and represent Ohio Northern on the national stage.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was getting into, but I trust Dr. Yoder,” Seda says. “When I got accepted into the program, I learned very quickly what they are trying to do, and that’s to get student leaders to first fully understand the fundamental question: why?”
Seda participated in a six-week online experiential-training course, in which she connected with a national network of Fellows to examine current entrepreneurial ecosystems. She learned the importance of asking why.
“It’s crazy, but people do things all the time without knowing why,” she says. “It might be ‘That’s how it’s always been done’ or ‘They told me to do it this way,’ but it’s still not knowing why. It is impossible for your work to have meaning or purpose if you don’t know why you are doing it. And it is also impossible for other people to believe in you or be inspired to follow you if you can’t tell them why they should.”
Understanding why and questioning why are not the same. The UIF is not developing contrarians. It is developing leaders. It affirms the value of higher education and deepens trust between students, faculty and administrators by helping them work together. It aims to empower students to have a greater voice in their own educations.
Seda’s assignment over the course of the six weeks was to map the academic resources within the College of Engineering. She examined the college from the student perspective in terms of which students take which classes, how often students seek help for problems they face, how challenging the courses are for them, and their general thoughts on the strengths and weaknesses of the programs. She then looked at the faculty, asking them about their demands in and out of the classroom and for their perspective of the learning environment. Finally she looked at the curriculum and educational opportunities offered by the college.
“It took a lot of time, but it was absolutely necessary for me to understand what my school needed, what they needed from me, what I needed to initiate,” she says. “It gave me a deeper appreciation for the school. This is a great school. The professors love us. They care for us. They want more than anything to see us succeed.”
Seda found herself expanding the scope of her investigation to include more of the University. She found it perplexing how, in some ways, ONU’s high-quality education was delivered at the expense of something equally beneficial to graduates when they begin their careers – collaboration outside of their field of study. She found collaboration and communication between ONU’s five colleges to be more rare than she expected. After all, she knew first-hand many examples of engineering students and business students working together through the Kern Family Foundation alliance.
“We need to be able to work with different majors. We need to be able to communicate with different people because that’s how we’ll succeed in the real world. I want to know how we branch out across the University. How can engineering students collaborate with students in nursing, chemistry or pharmacy?”
The first change
By her own account, the Alexandra Seda of today is different from the person who set foot on ONU’s campus nearly two years ago. She has grown. She has more confidence. She isn’t afraid to try new things. Perhaps most importantly, she actually sees herself becoming a leader.
Leadership comes naturally to some. For many it is a learned behavior, the combination of personality traits like intelligence, perseverance, courage and empathy focused towards a collective common goal. In some ways, leadership itself is not learned, but revealed when other aspects of one’s self are engaged.
“Introductory classes often entail particular challenges and hurdles, sometimes even leading to the temptation to give up. The more difficult the first steps, the deeper the self-assurance that is gained from persisting and overcoming difficulties. I'm very glad that Alexandra has persisted and succeeded," says Alexandra Coman, assistant professor of computer science.
Seda’s personal growth and development at ONU have put her in the position she now finds herself in. She is careful not to forget her former self when she looks for new ways to do things. Where she was then is where some students are now. She remembers being apprehensive both in and out of the classroom. She feared not knowing the answer. She worried about making mistakes.
Today she welcomes them.
“I now realize that failure is good. Failure means you are doing something; you’re trying. Failure is just a momentary pause before you have that ‘ah-ha’ moment that leads to success,” she says.
Seda’s enthusiasm for the College of Engineering is as contagious as it is genuine. Unlike most of her engineering cohort, her introduction to ONU was unscripted. After two years at the University of Montevallo in Alabama, where she majored in biology, Seda transferred to ONU to study engineering. As a result, she didn’t experience summer or fall orientation like most incoming students. These orientation sessions are designed to help students acclimate to the University and build relationships. Without that ONU primer, it’s easy to sympathize with her early apprehension, and it makes her rise all the more impressive.
For her to even be able to transfer to ONU at all was a minor miracle. In her heart, Seda believes that God made a way for her to be here. At the time she decided she wanted to change her major and pursue engineering, she was dealing with physical and emotional hardships that would cause many students to put their plans on hold. She found the strength to carry on after breaking a bone in her spine in January 2013 because the goal of transferring to ONU was in her heart and mind.
Yet even with an iron will, there was still the rather daunting issue of money.
“I never thought that I had the possibility to attend or afford engineering school, being a first-generation Latina student. But ONU made engineering affordable. I received my acceptance letter on my birthday, and it felt like I had received one of the precious golden tickets! Cheesy I know, but coming from such humble and financial beginnings, it was a huge blessing for me.”
Seda believes that she is here for a reason. She ultimately decided to take on the extra workload of the UIF program because of her fellow students. She sees them as family. They are her brothers and sisters who she’s willing to sacrifice for.
“I love the students here, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure they have an amazing experience at ONU and an even more successful career in the future,” she says.
The “I” in team
Seda’s Twitter feed shows a young woman with a tremendous passion for what she is doing. She’s talked innovation with leaders in the field from all over the United States, including Alex Bruton, the founder of The Innographer, an open-education and innovation design firm that helps people learn to become more entrepreneurial and more innovative; Dave Goldberg, the author of The Whole New Engineer, president of Big Beacon and co-founder of ShareThis; and even a Silicon Valley legend in Guy Kawasaki, the original Apple evangelist.
In fact, it was a simple Twitter exchange with Sean Maroni, the CEO of Betaversity, a social network for engineers to share their designs, that helped Seda focus on what ONU needed to start down a path of student-led innovation. He tweeted to her a four-word flowchart, “environment-->culture-->mindset-->outcomes,” that turned a spark into a flame.
The term “makerspace” is popular in the UIF lexicon. The Stanford Institute of Design (one of the two organizations that run Epicenter) literally wrote the book on how to develop physical environments that are exceptionally conducive to creativity, collaboration and innovation. They are typically bright, open areas with a stylistic aesthetic that matches its audience. They have moveable furniture for collaboration and plenty of surfaces for writing down and presenting ideas.
Creating a similar environment on campus was the one initiative from UIF that Seda was determined to employ at ONU, since her resource-mapping of the college showed that students just didn’t spend enough time in the Biggs Engineering Building outside of classes. As a result, the kind of casual interaction that leads to brainstorming and collaboration wasn’t happening often enough.
Specifically, Seda found evidence that Biggs was losing engineering students to other buildings with better study areas like the Giant Eagle student lounge in the Pharmacy Building, Heterick Memorial Library or residence hall common areas. She felt that if engineering students had a space of their own, they would utilize it and spend time there. This new environment could then influence a collaborative culture within the engineering college.
Maroni’s Tweet distilled everything Seda had learned and knew to be true into a single thought that she used in a 30-second sales pitch to associate professor of civil engineering Bryan Boulanger, who also shared an interest in developing a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at ONU.
“I was hoping he’d be supportive of the idea, but I didn’t expect him to get so excited about it,” she says. “He immediately went to Dr. Yoder and Dean Baumgartner and told them about it. They loved it and gave us funding to make this idea a reality.”
The engineering faculty also gave Seda something more important than money or encouragement. They found her an ally.
Adam Berry is a junior mechanical engineering major from Brunswick, Ohio. Although he and Seda were unaware of each other’s efforts to change learning environments within the college, they were attempting to do the same thing.
“I had been working with Adam throughout the year to discuss ways in which we could improve the learning environment within the Biggs Engineering building, says College of Engineering Dean Eric Baumgartner. “When Alexandra returned to campus after participating in the UIF program, I spoke with her about how her interests and Adam’s interests were nicely aligned, and I encouraged them to meet to discuss ways in which they could positively impact their environment here.”
Berry initially expressed concern to Dean Baumgartner that there simply wasn’t enough collaboration outside of the classroom to help students fully learn the concepts being taught in the classroom. Based on his experiences, students learn best when they discuss concepts with peers in a more natural setting.
“We don’t really have many large community settings where we can get together and talk about what we’ve learned. I believe this creates a hole in the academic setting. I hoped to fill that hole by expanding my high school experience into the engineering college to allow for students to put information to practice.”
Berry attended the renowned Hawken School in Cleveland. Its innovative curriculum and focus on whole-student development instilled Berry with a heightened understanding of what an education can be. The Hawken School’s philosophy values the power of community and foster connections through teamwork, partnerships and shared experiences.
“My school was different in that it did not focus on maintaining small gatherings of students in settings such as study halls, home rooms or other student-dividing practices,” he says. “Rather, it focused on the sense of community within the school by utilizing community spaces that allowed students and faculty to expand the learning environment outside the classroom.”
Together, Seda and Berry sent an email to the students in the College of Engineering announcing their intentions to create a common creative space in the Biggs Engineering Building. In it they wrote, “What we will do here will not only change the environment of the school, but also the culture. This unique opportunity is about recreating the spaces where you learn, study and forge lifelong friendships.” They invited students to join them.
The response to that email became ION, the Innovators of Ohio Northern, a student organization born out of a shared desire to improve the physical environments where students learn. With Boulanger as faculty advisor and a leadership corps comprised of Seda, Berry, Nathan Craft and Alex McMullen, this group of students is applying their design training to mold and shape their educational experience. It is ONU’s own version of the University Innovation Fellows.
“ION is proof that we are more than just students here. We are partners with the University,” says Seda.
Seda came away from tours of Google’s headquarters and Stanford’s D. School with the belief that environment is the single most important factor in instilling a mindset conducive to innovation. Therefore, ION’s first project would be a redesign of the Freshman Design Studio.
“We chose the Freshman Design Studio strategically because every student goes in there, even the upperclassmen,” says Seda. “We figured that if we really want to change the environment, we needed to target the freshman audience because they come in not really knowing what to expect. If we set the tone for them, it kind of sets the tone for the rest of the college.”
The planning and design phase of the transformation used the Stanford Design Thinking Method. ION considered factors such as flow, ambience, financial budgets, vision and creativity when they brainstormed ideas for the new space.
ION used the Easter holiday break to transform the Freshman Design Lab. They built a lounge alcove with plush couches and chairs for casual conversation and brainstorming. They added more work surfaces for studying and problem-solving. The room is full of whiteboards to capture all the brilliant new ideas, and a fresh new paint scheme brings in school spirit and stimulates creativity. Finally, a painting by sophomore mechanical engineering major Cheyenne Raker reminds students that creativity need not be constrained to solely engineering in the space.
“ION has been able to go above and beyond what I, or any student alone, could ever accomplish without it,” says Berry.
What’s truly exciting about what is happening in the College of Engineering is that this student-led movement is being supported at every turn by the faculty and the administration. From Yoder’s recommendation that Seda apply to the fellows program, to Boulanger’s guiding hand with ION, to Baumgartner’s foresight and commitment of resources, the college is actively nurturing this spirit of intellectual entrepreneurship they are witnessing in their students.
One might say that this whole exercise is setting the stage for the College of Engineering’s next few years, when a historic $1.21 million Kern Family Foundation grant will be put to use instilling the entrepreneurial mindset in engineering undergraduates from 2015 through 2018.
As a member of the Kern Entrepreneurial Engineering Network (KEEN) since 2005, ONU is one of approximately 20 private engineering colleges working to produce graduates with the entrepreneurial mindset to nurture curiosity, make connections and create value.
To hear Boulanger describe it, ONU was awarded the grant (the largest programmatic grant in the University’s history) because of the college’s willingness to adapt to a more modern way of delivering an engineering education when other schools weren’t.
“What we are going to do is redevelop our curriculum,” he says. “It’s an awesome opportunity. We need to push our students if we want to teach on the cutting edge, and that’s what we are doing.”
Specifically, the grant will be put towards developing a strategically designed curriculum in the mechanical engineering department with the intent of instilling the entrepreneurial mindset, immersive experiences such as courses and internships, continuing on-campus competitions such as the KEEN Innovation Challenges, and continued support for pedagogical innovation in the College of Engineering.
None of it can be done successfully without participation and input from the students. In ION, the college has a direct conduit into the minds of the students they plan to teach. As the culture changes to where students begin to see themselves as active partners with the faculty and administration, the mindset will change as well. If Maroni is correct, the outcomes that everyone wants – graduates with the skills, confidence and passion to shape the world they want – will follow.
What began with one student in the College of Engineering has blossomed into a movement that is poised to spread across campus. Innovators of Ohio Northern isn’t just about engineering. It’s about all of the colleges, all of the majors and all of the students. What started out as seven members now has a mailing list of nearly 50 with plenty of room to grow.
Seda is correct when she says that professional success depends on one’s ability to work effectively with others, especially those in different fields. Interdisciplinary opportunities do exist at ONU. Programs like the allied health fields’ IPE (inter-professional education) program, which brings pharmacy, nursing, medical laboratory sciences and exercise physiology students together, are not uncommon. But there is much room for growth in teaching students to be entrepreneurial in their approach to finding interdisciplinary connections on their own.
As more and more students assert themselves through groups like ION, or individually through conversations with faculty about what and how they want to learn, these outcomes will manifest themselves and further reveal what many already know —that while one of ONU's great strengths is its ability to change quickly, one of its greatest is its willingness to do so.