Innovation is the hallmark of 21st-century universities. USM is committed not only to providing its students with state-of-the-art knowledge, but also pledges to generate learning opportunities that encourage students to apply their insights to real-life situations.

Innovation in higher education goes beyond the mastery of subject matter, because it necessitates developing the habits of mind that will prepare students for the careers needed by today’s workplace, as well as for the jobs that we have yet to even imagine.

Brian P. Coppola, of the University of Michigan, and Yong Zhao, of the University of Oregon, captured this theme in a provocative commentary on the Chinese and American education systems recently published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“What seems to be underappreciated in this country,” they wrote, “is how actively the Asian systems are trying to embrace the values and outcomes that we appear so willing to abandon: specifically, the American penchant for promoting creativity, individualism, innovation and nonconformity. In other words, for developing and nurturing the diverse talent that can result from an ethos of coloring outside the lines.”

At USM, we want each and every student to “color outside the lines.” To that end, we just hired Raphael Deluzio, an artist who defines himself as a “hybrid professor” whose passion is to bring together faculty and students in hubs of activity to generate new ideas and then to commercialize them.

Professor Deluzio is proposing an ambitious and highly imaginative new program in “design science” that will bring together art, design, engineering, marketing and other disciplines with the intention of exposing students to interdisciplinary thinking and to entrepreneurial areas of the knowledge economy.

Many other USM faculty from a range of disciplines have been engaged in team-teaching the course Innovation Engineering, which is based on the question, “How can we teach creativity and innovation to produce ideas to solve real world problems?” The course is helping students acquire the creative, intellectual and practical skills they will need to analyze and solve the complex issues their future jobs will demand from them.

USM senior marketing major Patric Brophy of Farmington, one of these Innovation Engineering students, recently told a group of businesspeople that the course resonated with him because of his love for creatively solving problems, working within constraints, leveraging ideas and creativity, and “putting your name on a solution that has never been realized before.”

Brophy reminds us not to be confused by the course’s title. This is not about the field of engineering. It is about the process of innovation and its relevance to the challenges of the day.

Innovation Engineering brings together professors from different instructional and scholarly points of view who are passionate about the transmission of pioneering ideas and excited about spawning student creativity.

As Brophy points out, “I feel as though I have already gained a new set of tools as well as a great deal of perspective into new problem-solving methods. I could easily see myself pursuing innovation engineering as a career or applying its concepts to an entrepreneurial venture. Luckily, I think Maine is a great place to be.”

Innovation abounds at USM. Students from numerous disciplines are getting invaluable experiences through Campus Ventures, a partnership between USM’s College of Science, Technology and Health and the business incubator, the Maine Center for Enterprise Development.

Campus Ventures connects students and faculty with entrepreneurs who need technical expertise as they endeavor to convert ideas into marketable products and services.

Two of our computer science students, Richard Deane Best of Kennebunk and Jesse Altman of Winthrop, helped write the code for an invention by a Maine startup that could help public safety agencies communicate seamlessly during natural disasters. These types of experiences, says Mike Wing, USM director of external programs, are a win-win for entrepreneurs and students alike: “We are helping to build a pipeline of human capital for tomorrow’s high-skilled jobs.”

The process of discovery also depends on integrating a range of outside perspectives into our curriculum. That is one reason we have appointed Micki Meggison, an engineer with Sappi North America, as USM’s first scientist/engineer-in-residence.

In that role, she’ll act as ambassador and mentor to faculty, staff and students, exploring with them possible areas of alliance for research, internships and student placements.

USM is dedicated to making innovation a signature of its approach to education, one that focuses on that nexus between technology, the humanities and the sciences, preparing our students for roles in building Maine’s future.

Selma Botman is president of the University of Southern Maine. She can be contacted at:

president@usm.maine.edu