How entrepreneurial methods can support student teams to work with sustainable innovation.

By Sigrid Westad Brandshaug and Elli Verhulst

An example of how student teams can be encouraged and supported to act, interact, challenge, embrace and reflect while working to solve problems related to sustainability issues.

The number of sustainable challenges is growing, whereby higher education has an important role in preparing students to be able to work with such complex problems (Zhou et al., 2020). Entrepreneurial methods are thereby mentioned to support the development of the needed skillset (Filser et al., 2019). In January 2021 we had the opportunity to present and test entrepreneurial methods to a class of master students in the course “Sustainable innovation in the industrial cluster Arctic Cluster Team”.

This was an Experts in Teamwork village at NTNU managed in collaboration with Engage. The students worked in interdisciplinary teams to solve real-world problems, while they were also practicing and developing their teamwork skills. Due to corona, the course was digital. Although all communication was on Zoom, we observed students showing great engagement, participation and knowledge sharing. Based on student feedback and own reflections we want to share what we believe contributed to the positive learning atmosphere in the course, as this may be teaching strategies that can be adapted and applied by other educators as well, especially in courses where the aim is to support students to develop entrepreneurial skills and a mindset to become change agents. Since the strategies are related to the Engage framework, they will be presented as examples of the five concepts: 

Challenge – Trough cooperation with external partners providing real-world challenges, the students were expected to propose solutions that add value to different stakeholders. For many students, this was a new way of thinking: “aren´t school assignments for the purpose of grading?”. However, they found this challenge highly motivating. As one student put it: “We can actually contribute with something that has a sustainable impact!”

Interact – Cooperation and interaction with external partners, but also between the students was at the core of this course. At the beginning of the course, actions were initiated and structured by us as teachers, but after the first week, the students were in charge of their project and process. This resulted for instance in a session where the students made their own structure for presenting their project to another group. They kept sharing feedback, ideas and knowledge for several hours. At a certain point we just had to stop them, after all, it was Friday afternoon…

Act – All groups were engaged by going through using creative processes on projects in iterative cycles: researching, developing, testing, receiving feedback and learning. Each partner introduced their case, but the students worked on specifying and developing it further as a group. Ownership of the idea was very important. As an example, one team iterated on their project idea for several rounds and ended up with a solution quite different from the case description. However, their external partner found it both useful and innovative. 

Embrace –  For some students this was their first experience working on an open-ended task of this kind, which they experienced as highly challenging. However, we tried to support them through the process, especially in the early phase of the project. First, by providing tools to stimulate creativity as well as exercises. Some exercises helped the teams to open up for different perspectives, while other exercises aimed to support the teams to prioritize between these ideas. Secondly, we normalized the chaotic process early in the course through acknowledging emotional responses of uncertainty, frustration and anxiety, and by emphasizing the potential of learning and innovation in this chaotic phase.

Reflect – Individual and group reflection were integrated as a daily routine at the end of each course day. Situations related to the students’ project development and team collaboration were openly discussed and used as a basis for new actions and ideas of improvement, and just as important, for supporting the transfer from experiences to learning. The students found it difficult in the beginning, but after some rounds, they appreciated the “session of reflection”, and found it both interesting and useful.  

We believe that these structures and facilitation of both the students´ project development process and team process could be valuable in a variety of other courses in higher education that aim to integrate entrepreneurial methods. Student feedback and the course results show us that the students learned a lot and that it also was a fun experience, which seems to trigger their interest in acting entrepreneurially in teams with others in the future. 

Read more about the EiT village (norwegian)