Slated for a January 2020 opening, the Student Innovation Center will provide students and faculty with an opportunity to test out new teaching methods, interact with members from other colleges and collaborate with each other.
The project has been in development since 2015 when architect firms KieranTimberlake and Substance Architecture were selected. It then took almost all of 2016 for stakeholder input to be gathered and a program conceptualized and approved by the Board of Regents. In the spring of 2017, the site was demolished, and it began construction in the fall of 2017. Now the building is almost finished and students and faculty will soon be able to Iowa State’s center of student innovation and entrepreneurship on campus.
The Student Innovation Center will have three above-ground floors and one below-ground floor, including everything from a student-run cafe and a gaming lab to student organization offices inside of it.
Now in its final stages, the Student Innovation Center’s programs and facility are almost all put together. James Oliver, the director of the Student Innovation Center, now oversees the development of the facility and is excited to open it to students and faculty.
Oliver is a university professor and serves as the Larry and Pam Pithan Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Previously, he was the director of Iowa State University’s Virtual Reality Applications Center — an interdepartmental research center that focuses on emerging interface technologies.
“It’s everything that we do from teaching and learning to research, economic development [and] community outreach — all of those things,” Oliver said. “So, [a] very exciting and unique mission for any university, but certainly a great opportunity for us here at Iowa State.”
James Oliver entered his role as the director of the Student Innovation Center at the start of 2019, but he began working on the project long before his appointment.
“I joined advisory committees I believe in the spring of 2016, but it had been already in planning stages before that,” Oliver said. “[T]he long story short is it was in planning stages probably close to eight years ago and it was jump-started by a gift to Iowa State by an anonymous donor with the stipulation that the facility served the entire university, not just one or two colleges. But that really got the ball rolling.”
One anonymous donor put upward of $30 million toward the Student Innovation Center with just one request — the building serves the whole university.
“As fundraising continued, that donor, the anonymous donor, put an additional 10 million — total 30 million — dollars from one donor if you can believe that,” Oliver said. “The total building is about half supported by state funds and half from gift funds from alumni and donors, and the mission was really formulated or, well, motivated by that major donor that we use this facility to innovate across all aspects of the university’s land grant mission and serve the entire university.”
Overall, the Student Innovation Center ended up costing $84 million, the expected cost of the project.
Programs within the facility will be widespread and include groups from every college. Oliver described four pillars of which activities in the facility will demonstrate — interdisciplinary scopes, experiential learning, entrepreneurial mindsets and global perspectives.
“If your activity, whatever it is — again it could be a club, could be a course — if it demonstrates some coverage of those four pillars it has a great chance of being welcomed into the center,” Oliver said. “But, it’s welcomed to everybody.”
The diversity of students and faculty working at the Student Innovation Center will also stretch over all majors and draw from minds all across campus.
“My hope is that as students pass through, even if they’re trying to get out of the weather, they’re gonna run into people they wouldn’t normally run into,” Oliver said. “And from those ad hoc interactions come new ways of learning, new ways of thinking and students will be much better prepared for success as they experience it at the innovation center.”
However, with the Student Innovation Center not belonging to any singular college, decisions about what goes in the facility have not been the easiest.
“Like any big construction project, there’s probably more great ideas than we can accommodate,” Oliver said. “[B]ut the unique thing about the building is [that] in almost any university a building has a kind of allocated purpose, usually with a college or a program. For this building, 60 percent of the space is shared, which means it is not permanently allocated to any particular program, it is allocated on a rotating basis.”
By rotating out based on needs and ideas, Oliver said the facility will always be fostering innovations and entrepreneurship. Oliver said that this uniqueness is something unlike Iowa State, and even other colleges, has ever seen.
“It’s really never been done here at Iowa State, and I doubt at any other university where it’s that flexible by design,” Oliver said.
The Student Innovation Center is on track for opening in January, Oliver said, and there have not been any major setbacks, so the project has stayed exactly on budget over three years of construction, but they continue to fundraise for additional facilities and equipment.
“Fundraising is always a priority and I’ve helped with that,” Oliver said. “It’s been a really exciting process with a lot of buy-in certainly by the entire administration, but also colleagues, and students and student organizations.”
Once the building is open, Oliver said the Student Innovation Center will provide tremendous resources to student organizations with competitive project-based activities, allowing them to be more competitive at higher level national and international competitions. The facility will be able to energize entrepreneurship and innovation at student and recent-graduate levels, Oliver said.
“We have great resources here on campus to foster start-ups and entrepreneurial activity and that activity, some of it will be housed in the innovation center,” Oliver said. “So, we have great facilities at the Research Park, but now we have sorta a foot-on-the-ground for that kind of activity here right in the central part of campus.”