Innovation and Entrepreneurship

More than a mindset

A group of master’s and doctoral students is the first to pursue UNC-Chapel Hill’s new graduate Certificate in Innovation for the Public Good. How are they applying early lessons learned to create new programs, ventures and services that make a community impact?

Magnifying. Adaptive. Powerful. These are just a few of the words students in the first cohort of the Carolina Graduate Certificate in Innovation for the Public Good (CIPG) use to describe their experiences in the program. Launched in 2020 for University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill graduate students, the interdisciplinary certificate program teaches students about modern change making and helps them hone the skills they need to collaborate with others, partner with government, nonprofits, businesses and communities, and lead with agency to tackle challenges in new ways.

“The CIPG brings together diverse groups of students and challenges them to think through how to increase the impact of their work and make it more meaningful, even beyond their time at Carolina,” says Liz Chen, CIPG inaugural director and assistant professor in the health behavior department at the Gillings School of Global Public Health and design thinking lead at Innovate Carolina. “The coursework highlights mindsets that students haven’t fully developed and asks them to apply it to their work. This is different from other certificates and training where the focus may only be on content and skills.”

Effectively working across disciplines to solve complex problems isn’t easy, but CIPG helps students develop the mindset, methods and tools to collaborate with others to tackle economic, social and ecological challenges. As part of the coursework, each student is matched with a community partner to help them solve a real challenge. Examples of partners include UNC Chatham Hospital (a 25-bed critical access hospital located in Siler City, North Carolina), iRT (a behavioral sciences research company) and Girls on the Run Triangle (inspiring girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running).

“Working with the design thinking students was a rewarding experience for both Chatham Hospital staff and community members,” says Keith Stinson, the emergency department director and emergency preparedness coordinator at UNC Chatham Hospital. “Hospital staff had the opportunity to learn new process improvement methods, and the community members reported feeling connected to both the hospital and UNC students.  The program design was supportive, informative, and provided recommendations on improving a process at Chatham Hospital.”

“I’m interning in health care technology, and I’ve already been able to use some of the tools I’ve learned in class,” says Lianza Reyes, a master’s student in the School of Information and Library Science. “My work has benefited greatly from some of the frameworks I’ve learned in HBEH 748, like creating a journey map or even just forming empathy for users.”

A program built around problem-solving

Innovate Carolina, UNC-Chapel Hill’s University-wide initiative for innovation and entrepreneurship, worked to develop CIPG in partnership with three sponsoring academic units that administer the certificate on a rotating basis. The certificate will be administered by the Gillings School of Global Public Health for the first four years. It will then rotate to the College of Arts and Sciences (UNC Department of Public Policy) for four years, followed by a rotation at the School of Education.

CIPG emphasizes evidence-based and creative problem-solving approaches, along with team-oriented, customer/community discovery methods that students can use to develop solutions that address pressing human concerns. The learning journey is designed to help students move their ideas into action through the intentional development of mindset, knowledge and skills that transcend any single discipline.

“We know our graduate students care deeply about solving problems and creating impact,” says Melissa Carrier, CIPG advisory board chair and professor of the practice in the Department of Public Policy. “We intentionally designed the certificate to teach a horizontal set of skills that could be applied by all students, regardless of issue area or field of study. In addition, our students develop a deeper, better understanding of how to engage others in different disciplines who may think or see the problem and potential solution differently. We know how critical this training is because the challenges these students are trying to solve cannot be solved by any single approach or sector.”

Students participating in CIPG represent a diversity of degree programs, including master’s, Ph.D./PharmD and MD/DDS degrees, from schools across campus: Gillings School of Global Public Health, College of Arts and Sciences, Eshelman School of Pharmacy, Hussman School of Journalism and Media, Kenan-Flagler Business School, Adams School of Dentistry, School of Education, School of Government, School of Information and Library Science, School of Medicine, School of Nursing, and School of Social Work.

“Our students say that being on teams with colleagues from other fields of study is one of the best parts of this program,” says Carrier, who also works as the director of social innovation at Innovate Carolina. “They were surprised by how challenging it was to argue over methods and approaches and how eye-opening it was to see their own blind spots. This really speaks to the power of the design of the certificate and the fact that we have attracted such a large number and wide-ranging set of graduate students into the program. This creates a really unique space for those students to engage in ways that they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Building research skills and an innovation workforce

Students who participate in CIPG see immediate benefits. Open to masters and doctoral students (although not currently to degree-seeking online students) in any of the University’s graduate programs, the program gives students experiences with methods they can apply immediately to their thesis or dissertation work, or in current or future jobs. Marvin Espinoza, a student in the School of Education’s Master of Arts in Educational Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship program, is applying skills he’s learned through CIPG to his current role.

“I really loved learning how to interview, to listen and to follow breadcrumbs. This has been critical in the first few days at work, where I’ve been able to pick up on certain word use from our school’s staff. I’m continuing to observe and monitor so that I can develop a few questions to ask them,” says Espinoza, who is principal-in-residence at Vista College Prep, a high-performing charter network. “At my school, we are implementing a new method of teaching, and quite a few teachers have said, ‘This sounds great…in theory! I’m wondering…’ My ears immediately perked up when I heard this, so now I’m developing some questions as I listen and observe body language when they speak. This allows me to not only notice more communication from teachers but also pushes me to understand how to support teachers and redirect mindsets so that our students get their teachers’ best effort.”

“It’s important for me to learn these methods now so I can become easily adaptable as I enter the workforce following graduation, and that I can focus my time on creating successful outcomes without worrying about the effectivity of the processes that I commit to,” adds Reyes.

Social and economic value for the community

Not only does CIPG serve students, but the program also benefits participating community partners. For example, Chatham Hospital is taking elements of what the students produced and is moving forward with implementation. In addition, some of the students who worked on the project with Chatham Hospital have expressed interest in working outside of academic hours to help further the hospital’s work.

“As a faculty member, I can only hope we create products through the course that add value for our community partners as well as further our student’s learning,” says Chen. “It’s really nice to see that the work our students produced aligned with what our community partners wanted and needed.”

The inaugural class of students appreciate the value of earning the CIPG to further extend the impact of their work.

“I plan on doing qualitative user research for my thesis, and the CIPG methods I’ve learned are helpful in honing those skills,” says Reyes. “It’s especially important for me, since I’ll be trying to establish rapport with participants and work with them on a deeper level. The CIPG classes have been incredibly helpful in this regard since I’ve been able to work with a few non-profits multiple times.”

“I have been working with our assistant principal of culture to develop a new behavioral management system for our middle school,” adds Espinoza. “One of the first methods I started using was brainstorming methods for how to prototype this system before pushing a full-scale pilot. This means we can gather critical information and avoid major issues when we do scale.”

Applications for the Fall 2021 CIPG cohort are now open, and the application deadline is Sept. 1, 2021. For more information, visit the CIPG website.