“Think” – “Collaborate” – “Innovate” are three steps posed by students in their Hackathon Innovation Challenge. This is just an example of one of the activities linked to the Innovation & Leadership course, in which groups of students commonly solve challenges posed by the highest tiers of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (FAU) or associated companies. On its first year, FAU students have been tasked to design a virtual challenge themselves instead of solving one posed by another entity. The challenges have revolved around one of EELISA´s main topics: Sustainable & Smart Industries, Cities and Universities, and they shall be solved by students outside FAU. To learn more about this ambitious and innovative course, teachers Matthäus Wilga and Nina Lugmair talked to us and explained the keys of their course:
Q. What is the goal of this course?
A. The lecture gives students an understanding of innovation, how people can lead and communicate change in IT-driven networked organizations. Leaders have to engage people in the co-creation of a suitable and sustainable environment to make innovation thrive. But this is not an easy task: leaders must cultivate abilities to handle the challenges inherent in a business setting characterized by unstructured and volatile information. Hence, we equip students with knowledge on leading edge innovation tools, together with insights on the structuring of leadership systems towards innovation. Another important feature of this study course is that we also encourage students to internalize and deepen these insights by directly applying them in challenging settings. An interesting fact is that the students are organized in cohorts of 15-20 students, who have to sub-divide into functional teams working towards the same goal. This cohort structure consciously mimics the challenges and constraints of real-life corporate settings, in which teams usually are dependent on other teams and an overarching divisional structure. We therefore expect this setting to effectively prepare students for their future work-life.
Q. For which study programmes is this course relevant?
A. This course targets students from different disciplines, who are interested in learning about approaches for the problem-centered solution of real-life issues. Both innovation and leadership need to happen in every stratum of a company. Moreover, in many cases successful innovation requires the cooperation and heterogeneous expertise of different departments within a company. The participants in this course are therefore a mix of students, which mirrors the diverse domains of our university. While all of them have a technology focus, the involved study programs range from engineering- or information system-related ones over medical technology up to business-focused programs. Moreover, we usually have a high quota of exchange students in this course. Hence, our course mimics the real-life work environment of internal company projects, which involves the need of deliberate leadership and communication to coordinate and engage people with diverse educational and cultural backgrounds.
Q. What do students learn by designing and solving challenges?
A. At the universities in the EELISA network, we are training future leaders. Leading others in the creation of solutions for challenges in real-world settings requires different abilities than solving those challenges by yourself. As future leaders, students need to know how to guide and motivate people as well as how to activate and foster the strengths of others to strive for a greater goal, since well-working teams will achieve more than the sum of its members individually ever could. The activation of the power of stakeholders is an even more important topic in times in which long-term economic success more than ever builds on the collective value creation performed by the co-creator communities in their ecosystems. From an educational standpoint, the design and conduct of challenges poses a particularly interesting learning environment with many different facets. From a leadership perspective, it does not only involve leadership internally within their teams but also deliberate leadership of external participants and stakeholders. From an innovation perspective, it compels continuous evolution of internal processes to establish the most effective setting to foster innovative solutions as a result of the conducted challenges. The course gives students hands-on experience in a pressure-cooker setting, which gives them the opportunity to develop the necessary agility to handle problem-solving in this volatile environment today, for example by being compelled to swiftly adapt their internal and external organization to a virtual setting. Finally, we aim to foster personality building of students. We illustrate leadership types they can identify with, reflect upon or develop into and offer a testbed for everyone to try themselves out in a safe environment, in which potential mistakes bear rather minor consequences compared to a work-life setting. At the end of each year, it is incredible to see what the students are able to create. And by the way, it is quite a leadership experience for the lecturers as well.
Q. Why do you consider EELISA students as a potential target?
A. Innovation is at the core of EELISA and thus a very good match for this course. One of EELISA’s leitmotifs is “European Engineering Education for a Smart and Sustainable Society”. So, for this year we designed our course very close to that motto and around three major perspectives for sustainable & smart solutions: industry as the backbone of our economy, cities as our living environment and our universities as the centres of our learning. We believe that these are fields, in which our students can contribute a kaleidoscope of new ideas. Moreover, we are living a globalized world, in which innovations happen across borders. So problem-centred engineering will always essentially involve for example intercultural communication. We can achieve a learning experience for this crucial topic by having diverse internal teams but also through the inclusion of international stakeholders to collaborate with, for example from our EELISA partner universities. And of course, the creative potential will be significantly raised by the European University. With this course, we are generating learnings and best practices for the organization and communication processes of the European University and we are pretty curious about learning ideas from other universities in Europe.
All students across EELISA are welcome to participate in one of the five proposed challenges (see links see below)!