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St. Olaf faculty members travel to Silicon Valley to study innovation

ACM faculty members — including St. Olaf Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Paul Jackson ’92 (third from right) and Entrepreneur in Residence Sian Muir (far right) — tour biotech incubator QB3@953 with Scientific and Operations Director Richard Yu (center).

Three St. Olaf College faculty members recently traveled to Silicon Valley — the global home of innovation and creativity — to investigate the connection between innovation and the liberal arts as part of an Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) program.

Professor of Art Irve Dell, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Environmental Studies Paul Jackson ’92, and Entrepreneur in Residence Sian Muir traveled to California for 10 days as part of the ACM’s 18-month seminar Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem.

The seminar is the fifth in a series of Seminars in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL) organized by the ACM colleges and funded through a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Participants in the seminar visited tech giants like Google and LinkedIn, as well as budding start-ups like Sprig, to get an up-close look at what drives innovation — something that liberal arts colleges are trying to capture.

ACM faculty members visited several Silicon Valley tech giants, including Google.

They also visited Stanford University to talk with researchers in their labs, and had a Q-and-A session with Terry Winograd, the Ph.D. advisor to Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin. There was even an opportunity to meet with the “Father of Virtual Reality,” Jaron Lanier.

The St. Olaf professors joined faculty from four of the other ACM colleges, which allowed for discussions about how what they saw in Silicon Valley could be applied to teaching and learning in the liberal arts.

Another important component of the trip was meeting with alumni from various ACM colleges who are currently working in Silicon Valley. These meetings enabled the professors to get an idea of how a liberal arts education prepares graduates to work in such innovative environments — and where teaching can be improved.

The three St. Olaf faculty members will use what they learned through this program to create a course module on innovation during the spring semester of the 2016-17 academic year.

We are creating an integrated, multiple stage, design-thinking module,” Jackson says. “Three of our spring term courses — Marketing, Sculpture/Direct Metal, and Integration/Application in Environmental Studies — will come together to execute a shared experience in cross-disciplinary, creative design, and prototyping work. Students will then continue to refine some of the ideas in their individual courses.”