“Innovation College”: A Magical Incubator for VT

MIT’s Building 20, built in 1943, was called the “Magical Incubator” because over the course of its long history it housed a range of laboratories involved in some of the most important and ground-breaking developments in science and technology, from acoustics to radar. This short piece was produced to share at the March 1998 commemoration that gathered former tenants of the building before its demolition in 1998 to make way for the Ray and Maria Stata Center.

I think it [Building 20] is a place where things start…. We started the big Laboratory for Nuclear Science at MIT. We started the Research Laboratory of Electronics. We started what was called the Educational Research Center…. [Y]ou not only start things but you also start [them] with a certain independence of mind. It’s this attitude that I think you should look for in a place…. It doesn’t matter that it’s dirty and noisy and hot. The important thing [is] the people.
MIT Professor Jerrold Zacharias

“MIT’s Building 20: The Magical Incubator” (MIT TechTV)

MIT Tech TV

Starting things with “a certain independence of mind.” What if these “things” were not only specific projects within specific disciplines, but projects having to do with the very processes and content of education itself? What if a small unit within Virginia Tech were charged with recruiting faculty, staff, and students with “a certain independence of mind” to a new “innovation college” within the University, one that would reflect on, and tinker with, curriculum and programs and learning environments and learning technologies, all with an eye to generating as many good new ideas as possible? For such a unit to be truly effective, truly innovative, it would need to be bold, to risk failure, and to accept the need to explain and assess its work on local, regional, national, and global levels. It would be messy. Students in such a college would have to understand and accept the need for a certain amount of uncertainty, for they would help to generate that uncertainty themselves as part of the process of ceaselessly reimagining their education.

A school that asks its members to reflect continually on its assumptions, values, and processes could provide the “ultimate education” for lifelong learning–and for meeting the need for the “whole new mind” that Daniel Pink calls a necessity for flourishing in the 21st century.

Yet this independence of mind needs comprehensive support. Faculty need a safety net. Change is hard. Innovation is risky. The necessary and important innovations envisioned and described on this website require resources. Many strategies are possible. We can:

- Offer faculty funded graduate students, tuition waivers, and the like if those graduate students spend some significant percentage of their time helping revise and innovate faculty courses in ways that can be maintained by faculty once the student leaves.
- Staff departments and colleges with innovative instructional design / learning technology specialists that have content-relevant expertise, much as we staff them with librarians and development officers.
- Expand and revise the Faculty Development Institute curriculum, staff, and mission, including innovative specialists such as those described above, to inspire and support adoption of innovative instructional technologies.
- Expand Innovation Space facilities and staff so they can handle increasing faculty and student needs.
- Begin pilot projects with Google, Apple, IBM, Modea, and the like to develop innovative instructional technologies that will have significant market value.
- Support communities of practice.

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