How to engage students outside of their academic bubble



Last night, I made it out to Addison for the NTx Apps Challenge award ceremony hosted at the Addison TreeHouse. It was incredible seeing the projects that were being worked on over the past few months and what each team came up with in each category. Of course, being a Dentonite and UNT alumni, I was incredibly happy to see that 3 out of the 5 winning teams hailed from Denton. It was an incredible event and I couldn’t have been prouder.
As I was walking around, Nancy Hong from the UNT Innovation Greenhouse asked me if I could drive some of the TAMS kids, on the winning team Energy Pal, back to Denton. I said sure, gathered them up, and headed back to Denton. On the drive home, I asked them about how they got involved in programming, and what made them decide to pick up AngularJS, Ionic, Node.js and the rest of the MEAN stack. I loved hearing it, because it all came back to essentially curiosity and “because it sounded cool". These were incredibly down to earth kids who were very up to speed on what’s going on in the world, and were constantly looking for new ways to get involved.
I know I haven’t posted much on here lately, but if any of you really know me, you know that I’m a community builder in my spare time. I organize as many events as I can (and my wife allows), work with TechMill in Denton helping the local startups, am very involved in the Dallas scene and almost all the UP Global related in the area (particularly being a go-to guy for all things Startup Weekend related in North Texas). Working on my senior project while at UNT is what got me into this community after pitching it at Startup Weekend Dallas, and I learned so much and had such a great experience, it made me look back at all of the other students who had incredible projects for Design Day at Discovery Park, with so much potential for greater things. I declared my own initiative to figure out how to get students more involved.
What is the trick? How can we get more students involved with the concept of startups and entrepreneurship, and just get them more involved with the community in general? One of my ideas is simple - change your message. We need to change the way we market this to students. What I’ve noticed is if you talk to an average student about entrepreneurship, you usually get a blank stare and then they associate that word to “business", i.e. boring. How can we re-brand our message in a way that resonates with students?
I ran a test a few weeks ago at the UNT Innovation Greenhouse. If you aren’t familiar with the Innovation Greenhouse, it is an on-campus resource that helps students with ideas. This can be from helping build a business plan, set up meetings with mentors, and potentially gain access to investors. I walked outside the building and saw a really small sign that read “UNT Innovation Greenhouse: We help grow your ideas". I stopped a student and had a small conversation that went something like this:
Me: “Have you ever heard of the Innovation Greenhouse?"
Student: “Nope."
Me: “Does that sign mean anything to you?"
Student: “Not really."
Me: “Have you ever had an idea for like a new iPhone app?"
Student: “Well… yea."
Me: “Well, did you know that they can also help you with that?"
Student: “Uhh, I had no idea."
Earlier this week at the Intro to the North Texas Startup Community event I spoke at, I met with David Fares who is also trying to do the same thing at UT Arlington. We started talking about different ways we could get students involved, running small Lean Startup Workshops that are non-technical and appeal to a broader group of students. Even on the car ride home with the TAMS kids, they have their own student organization called RESOLV that also tries to help students directly, though not too many students know about them.
That’s what I have so far. I feel strongly about getting students more involved outside of their academic bubble, because there is just so much more going on than they could ever imagine. I know, I've been there. If you know the secret - feel free to share in the comments below.