Red Rocks Community College’s IDEA Lab Is Changing The Face of Innovators

June 20, 2016 – The IDEA Lab at RRCC provides opportunities, tools and resources for community college students – often non-traditional, veterans, minority, low-income, and/or the first generation in their family to go to college – to become innovators for the common good.

“Most people don’t think about community college students as being likely social entrepreneurs,” said Liz Cox, Director of the IDEA Lab. “We want to change that perception. It is precisely because our students are diverse, non-traditional, and with varying background knowledge from military, farming, or helping run a family business that they bring unique perspectives to problem-solving.”

Students are drawn to Red Rocks in part for the transfer agreement in engineering to the Colorado School of Mines, but often are not confident in their abilities to succeed in STEM or certain of their pathway through engineering. That’s where students benefit from the guidance of Jeremy Beard, professional engineer, graduate student at the Colorado School of Mines, and instructor of engineering design at Red Rocks. Beard helps students see how what they study in the classroom is applied to solving problems in the real world.

“We don’t want cool gadgets sitting in the IDEA Lab. We want to create solutions that will go out of the Lab and serve a real purpose. Students feel really empowered when they see their designs actually being implemented,” said Beard.

Some IDEA Lab projects benefit local industries, while others support communities around the globe, addressing complex issues such as landslides, water conservation and sustainable farming.

Partnering with Fundación ESFRA, a non-profit in Guatemala City that supports community development, the IDEA Lab designed drones that can carry a camera and GPS in order to take pictures and develop a 3D topography map to analyze landslide patterns and reduce residents’ risk from small landslides. The drones will also help with upcoming projects, such as large landslide analysis through remote sensing devices. Matt Dobson, promising aerospace engineer en route to University of Colorado-Boulder, is spending his summer to finish the first working prototype.

“Being able to see a project all the way through – from research and construction to a complete, flying model – is something unique to the IDEA Lab. The prospect that I would be able to impact the lives of others is what drew me to this project,” said Dobson. The team hopes to be able to deliver the first prototype to Fundación ESFRA by late July.

Team Project UPLIFT (Uniting People in Learning and Ingenuity to Flourish and Thrive) is an interdisciplinary team of Red Rocks students who are working with Agile International, an NGO whose mission is to return Western Africa to food abundance by empowering local women farmers. Project UPLIFT works directly with Fatou Doumbia, founder of Agile and resident of Longmont, Colorado, as well as local community members in Sanakaroba, Mali to improve the farm’s infrastructure. Their involvement will benefit hundreds of women farmers who are currently trying to convert a 35-acre plot of land into a wide-scale sustainable farm operation. Project UPLIFT’s work includes designing a solar-powered well pump and analyzing weather data provided by industry partner AWhere, a Broomfield-based weather data analysis firm, and agriculture data from Global Development Analytics. Project UPLIFT’s goal is to provide a source of water for irrigation so women don’t have to travel long distances by foot for water and can put more time into growing their entrepreneurial ventures.

Thom Deisz, who plans to transfer to Colorado School of Mines, said, “I chose engineering so I could make a difference. It has been incredible that I have been able to do so through the IDEA Lab before I even graduate.”

Partnering with local business and industry has given students not only real world experience, but also has led to internships and employment. Keya Horiuchi, a computer technology student, was part of an IDEA Lab team to enter the National Science Foundation (NSF) Community College Innovation Challenge. Her team asked AppliedTrust, a Boulder-based IT company, to serve as their industry partner and provide mentoring to the team. After the team won first place in the nation with their Mobile Medical Disaster Relief Dispensation Unit, AppliedTrust hired Keya on as an intern and then she moved into a permanent position.

“Winning the NSF Innovation Challenge was a great experience,” said Horiuchi. “It was a good primer to get real world experience by applying problem-solving skills in the industry. This has been incredibly inspiring.”

These students feel inspired and hopeful knowing that their efforts will make a difference in lives of others.

“The projects give students an opportunity to be a part of something that will make a positive impact, an opportunity that they would not normally search for. Students are looking for something that is not just an idea, but a solution that they can build and see has a measurable impact,” said Beard.

Beyond positive impact, the IDEA Lab contributes to creating an innovative workforce. According to director Cox, “The skills that students develop through these projects – teamwork, cross-disciplinary collaboration, project management – are transferable across industries. It’s about self-directed learning that is relevant, applied and meaningful.”

More about the IDEA Lab can be found at www.rrcc.edu/idea-lab.