Student collaboration connects with Discovery Themes at INNOVATE-O-thon

ORISadmin Discovery Themes Initiative, Events


The Institute for Materials Research (IMR) cast a wide net to land the diverse collection of students and faculty taking aim during the most recent INNOVATE-O-thon at improving energy efficiency at the Columbus campus of The Ohio State University.


Faculty members hired through different focus areas of the Ohio State’s Discovery Themes Initiative joined nearly 50 students from across colleges to try their hands in helping shape the future of energy consumption at the land-grant university.


The students’ challenge: Develop a strategy to inspire nearly 60,000 students at the 485-building campus to alter their day-to-day, energy-use habits and, ultimately, push the Columbus campus toward its lofty goal to improve energy efficiency by at least 25 percent over 10 years.


“INNOVATE-O-thon, I’ve done it twice in the past, and it’s always kind of fun to interact with people from different backgrounds,” said Muhammad Shao, a major in mechanical engineering. “It’s good to hear different perspectives. I’ve realized, from the past, that design majors are just as important as engineering majors.”


The students’ strategies were pitched to a panel of representatives from ENGIE, which makes up half of a joint venture with Axium Infrastructure called Ohio State Energy Partners, responsible for the operation and maintenance of the central utility systems that heat, cool and power the Columbus campus.


The INNOVATE-O-thon externship program ran Feb. 9 to 11 at the IMR Innovation Lab on Kinnear Road. IMR hosted the event in collaboration with the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.


“The Innovation Lab is an interdisciplinary lab. It draws students from different parts,” said Serdar Tufekci, CEO of Ohio State Energy Partners. “And that is exactly what we wanted because, at the end of the day, what we are trying to do is not just engineering, it’s not finance, it’s not arts. It is a combination of all those. We wanted to attract students from across campus. It looked like a match made in heaven.”


Faculty members supported students through different points in the development process by engaging and helping them guide themselves toward solutions and identify potential barriers.


“We were there to help the students generate questions and formalize their thoughts,” said Christian Blanco, assistant professor of operations management at the Fisher College of Business. “For instance, we would ask, “How can you make your product more appealing to students who are not interested in sustainability?”


Through the weekend, students generated a myriad of innovative ideas, including mobile app and technology-based engagement efforts, education and training programs, awareness campaigns and cross-campus partnerships. They were responsible for planning everything from project costs to implementation.


“It is encouraging and inspiring to see students from various disciplines come together to solve a problem,” said Blanco, who was hired through the Discovery Themes’ Materials and Manufacturing for Sustainability focus area. “I learned a lot from the students during the event.”


Students learned from one another as well.


Ruozhao Chen, a major in agribusiness and applied economics, and operations management, was a member of the winning team, whose concept and details of its implementation will be unveiled later this year.


“I really like that this was open to all majors, because I think that we all bring a different perspective, and we were all able to learn from each other. That encouraged more collaboration and more teamwork among us,” she said.


Chen’s group included members whose majors ranged from materials science and engineering to marketing, and environment economy development and sustainability. That diversity was crucial in generating the range of ideas that allowed her team to take home the top prize, she said.


Nicole Sintov, assistant professor of behavior, decision making and sustainability at the School of Environment and Natural Resources, worked with Blanco and students on Friday, during the initial brainstorming phase. Sintov, was hired through the Discovery Themes’ Sustainable and Resilient Economy focus area.


“Both Themes had unique sets of expertise to contribute and I enjoyed the opportunity to work with the M&MS folks,” she said.


Blanco said the collaborative approach can lead to discoveries that would less likely materialize without it, but it also requires aligning incentives, managing expectations and getting out of one’s comfort zone. However, the collaboration among students at INNOVATE-O-thon required no guidance by faculty.


“The goal of the event was to think of ways to cut energy use on campus, but there is one type of energy that I doubt we can reduce: the student’s energy for innovation,” Blanco said.


The Institute for Materials Research is an interdisciplinary institute that works across colleges and departments at The Ohio State University to facilitate, promote and coordinate research and infrastructure related to the science and engineering of materials.


Story by Mike Huson, IMR Public Relations Coordinator