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Jackson State University Just Opened a State-Of-The-Art Center For Innovation As A New ‘Makerspace’ For Inventors

(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)
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The following is a press release that was sent to Watch The Yard by Jackson State University.

About 200 people gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the recent grand opening of Jackson State University’s Center for Innovation that combines education, research and entrepreneurship in a single location that could spur inventions to power the economy and simplify life.

The new facility for students, faculty and staff provides access to virtual experiences with Oculus VR technology, and 3D printing to develop whatever they imagine. As well, there’s a soundproof room to create top-quality podcasts and green screen backgrounds. Each of these cutting-edge technologies are housed in a vast “expertise co-location” center, “makerspace” and Collaboratory, located inside JSU’s H.T. Sampson Library.

Also, the “one-stop shop” offers advice on technology transfer for moving innovative products and ideas to the market. This is especially important “because most universities don’t provide this convenience, which is critical to making this center a success,” said Dr. Almesha L. Campbell. She’s the director of JSU’s Technology Transfer, Commercialization and Research Communications in the Office of Research and Economic Development. Campbell led the development of the center that was conceptualized by Dr. Joseph A. Whittaker, associate provost and vice president for Research and Economic Development.

In addition, Campbell said the Center for Innovation represents the three pillars of success outlined by JSU President William B. Bynum’s 10-year strategic plan. The pillars guide JSU toward (1) teamwork and collegiality; (2) pursuit of excellence; and (3) student-centeredness.

“Again, all of these are demonstrated in one place,” Campbell said. “The center provides the resources to create prototypes and learn about entrepreneurship. Students can also indulge in app development, game design and graphic designs.”

(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)

She added that “students get to collaborate with their peers because the center is interdisciplinary, meaning that it doesn’t focus exclusively on STEM, for example. Rather, we have students from several different academic disciplines. This is important because some students may have a particular skillset, and this approach allows them to collaborate and learn from each other, and build something truly innovative.”

Campbell also initiated an Innovation Fellows Program made up of students to help sustain the center and infuse innovation throughout the JSU campus. Before the grand opening, 10 fellows were trained as ambassadors and facilitators. They demonstrated and showcased all they created: VR games, mobile apps, 3D designs, gadgets, and other tech models. 

This year’s fellows represent several academic disciplines: computer engineering, computer science, graphic design, marketing, mass communications and public health.

They assisted peers, faculty, staff and guests in each creative area of the center. Before the fellows graduate, however, they must train at least two other fellows who would potentially become part of the program.

One of the fellows is Ahmed Mohmmedali, a native of Sudan. He’s a computer science master’s student in the College of Science, Engineering and Technology (CSET). He said his primary area in the Center for Innovation is software development.

“All the technology here is very interesting to me. Technology, in general, makes life easier – from developing software applications to using 3D printers. It helps produce valuable skills that can change anyone’s life. Many people who come here may decide later to abandon their specialization to pursue a career in technology. I encourage every one of our students and innovators to visit the center,” Mohmmedali said. 

Another fellow, Vince Sheffey of New Mexico, is also a senior computer science major. He is in charge of the VR space. “I help anyone who wants assistance with virtual reality. If I had this when I was freshman I would be way ahead. For anyone just coming to JSU, you have a lot of opportunities to pursue your own projects. You can make your own videos for virtual reality. There’s a lot of creativity for technical and non-technical individuals. Here, you can also make T-shirts, buttons and websites. If I were a freshman, I would test everything here. Find out what you’re good at, not good at and what you’d like to do. Then you can focus the rest of your years on being great at that,” he said.

JSU President William B. Bynum Jr. described the center as a place to “create ideas that respond to the way that students think, interact and behave. So, I challenged our faculty and staff to create opportunities where we’re meeting the needs of students. And, so this space is what it’s all about.” 

(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)

Bynum said the center fosters innovation, and it encourages young people, in particular, to explore their ideas even further.

Meanwhile, with JSU already hailed as a “higher-research activity university” by the Carnegie Foundation, Associate Provost Whittaker’s vision was for JSU to infuse even more technology into its curricula. He called the new center “revolutionary.”

During the initial phase of the VR component, Whittaker had said, “This is a way to have real-world experiences virtually and to reinforce what you learn in the classroom.” So, he pursued a neutral design space to allow people to create, explore and experiment with an idea – “whether it’s entrepreneurial or just something that they thought of overnight.”

With the opening of the new center, Whittaker’s dream was finally being realized after faculty, staff and students swarmed into the center to explore new horizons in creativity. He credited the support from Bynum and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Dr. Lynda Brown-Wright, who called the center “transformative.” 

Guests included community businesses, Small Business Administration and representatives from various higher educational institutions such as Georgia Tech, University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University. As well, industry giants Entergy and HP, which have committed to expanding their partnership with JSU, were also in attendance. Even representatives from the technology transfer industry supported the opening.

(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)

HP’s Mike Belcher, director of Education Technology Innovation for the Americas, works closely with K-12 and higher education. The company examines the future of technology and what it means for the economic future of the U.S.

Belcher said, “I had a chance to meet with Dr. Whittaker and Dr. Campbell. They came out to one of our HP facilities in Houston to do a briefing on these new technologies. We immediately saw there was a synergy. The work they had envisioned for the Center for Innovation was exactly the sort of programs that we have in play. So, we asked to be involved wherever they need us, wherever we can help. We’re going to help in the process of thinking through some of their new spaces – academically and instructionally. HP is in the process of building curricula that would be really valuable, particularly around 3D printing and manufacturing. And, we do all sorts of grants and programs around building instructional material for virtual reality. So, we’re going to work on a partnership there as well.”

Christopher Burke of Entergy Corp. recently relocated to Jackson from Houston, Texas. He said he’s committed to supporting JSU. He noted that the university has many successful alums who work in the industry and are willing to “come back to serve to help the university thrive.”

Burke said Entergy, as a corporate entity, has a vested interest in JSU because of the university’s “diversity, belonging, inclusion-standpoint, and being an HBCU. I’m looking forward to being a part of a partnership that’s already been in existence between Jackson State and Entergy Corporation.”

North Carolina’s Nanovest Financial is a company in the technology transfer industry. Its representatives  also commended JSU for the support it provides to innovators.

Aditya Badve, president and partner of Nanovest, said tech transfer takes innovation and figures out whether a product will work in the market and how to get it there. “We lay out the steps for a typical innovator at a university (student, faculty, staff, anyone). We share the thought processes in working with Dr. Campbell, or any tech transfer office, in order to validate their invention and take it to the market.”

(Charles A. Smith/University Communications)

Nanovest’s business strategist Kevin Magee added that “if a researcher, professor or student develops a product, the university owns a piece of that. The university then is motivated to generate some revenue, and they’re motivated to support their researcher. That entire process includes patent review, too,” he said.

During the opening ceremony, Provost Brown-Wright announced the launch of the Young Innovators Program, a partnership between Academic Affairs, the center and Blackburn Middle School in the Jackson Public School District. The program will use project-based learning to encourage critical thinking and immerse students in virtual reality and 3D modeling. As well, it will introduce young learners to the invention process to stimulate and foster creative thinking and spark an inventive spirit.

Overall, Campbell said the support for the center has been “extraordinary.” She said she’s “extremely grateful” for the corporate and private support. Along with that, she said the university will announce a Presidential Innovation Challenge that will support the efforts of the Center for Innovation. “Visit the center, talk to the fellows, and stay tuned,” she said.

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