Innovation Challenge Tests Creative Thinking on a Deadline

  • A group of students in Steinman College Center stop to read the submission guidelines for the March 28 Franklin Innovation Challenge. In a twist, this year's competitors will engage in a rally-style race to assemble a product prototype from a specific set of supplies. (Photo by Kristina Montville '14)  

By Warren Glynn '15

Since launching three years ago, the Franklin Innovation Challenge has charged Franklin & Marshall students with creating inventive business plans to solve pressing social needs in their communities. This year, the contest has undergone an innovation itself -- with a new, timed format designed to inspire even more groundbreaking results and provide real hands-on experience.

During the fourth annual Innovation Challenge, starting at 4 p.m. Friday, March 28, in the Alumni Sports and Fitness Center, students will compete in a rally-style race to assemble a product prototype from a specific set of supplies -- in under three hours. Each group of four to six contestants and their faculty or staff advisers will receive the same set of materials, but the contents and concept will remain a mystery until the competition begins. Finalists will present their inventions to a panel of judges that will choose winners for cash prizes of $500, $250, or $100 per team member.

"The event is designed to be fun, competitive and educational," said Mark Kuhn, a Class of 1985 alumnus and the executive in residence for F&M’s Business, Organizations & Society Department. In his volunteer role, Kuhn supports and manages the innovation challenge with F&M's Office of Student & Post-Graduate Development. 

"We wanted to breathe some new energy into the event and make it easier for students to participate," Kuhn said. "All students will be on equal footing with this new structure. Innovation and creativity will be the key differentiators."

In addition to being judged on their creations, student groups will be monitored for team dynamics, leadership, design approach and, of course, innovation. Each group must include a team member from F&M's faculty or professional staff. Challenge organizers also encourage participants to form teams with members of different class years, majors, genders and cultures.

"Diversity on any level will make for a stronger team and fosters 'ah-ha!' moments," Kuhn said. "This also is a time when students can get a break from their normal routines and interact with faculty, staff and alumni."

The contest has important real-world applications, too, Kuhn emphasized. "Regardless of where students end up in their chosen fields later in life, the ability to work in teams and distill ideas that end in exceptional results are all processes that we need to excel in out in the real world," he said.

Graeme Blackman, a senior business, organizations & society major, said that aspect of the competition appeals to him.

"Challenging yourself to think in new ways is applicable to any job," he said. "If we think in the old ways, we'll only come up with the old products."

Blackman plans to participate with a group of five other students with majors ranging from environmental studies to government.

"We definitely think we can bring together everything we've each learned."

Sign-up forms for this year's competition are available in the Steinman College Center, and teams may register until Friday, March 7. The challenge is limited to the first 20 teams to enter.

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