STEAM Innovation Center Set to Connect College with Industry

Otterbein University is playing matchmaker between its students and local employers in high-demand industries.

by Alissa Widman Neese, The Columbus Dispatch, Ohio / September 7, 2016 0

(TNS) — Employers in the booming fields of science and technology are always on the hunt for well-trained workers.

Recent college graduates want jobs that pay well, but connecting the two and ensuring that the applicants are qualified can sometimes be daunting.

Officials at Otterbein University are confident they've found the solution to an apparent local shortage of employees for in-demand careers. The private university in Westerville unveiled a one-of-a-kind facility this semester that places industry professionals and college students under the same roof on Collegeview Road.

Businesses can lease space in the 61,000-square-foot facility, offering students easy access to on-site internships and other hands-on experiences. The goal is for the partnerships to prosper into eventual job opportunities for graduates. The building will feature cutting-edge equipment and classrooms, a large event space, laboratories, offices and plenty of open learning areas to foster collaboration, innovation and creativity.

"This will retain a talent pipeline for these careers in central Ohio while offering students the type of integrated, personalized education Otterbein University is known for," said Kathy Krendl, president of the 3,000-student university. "We really want to push the envelope of what's possible."

The work-in-progress doesn't have a name -- that will be announced in a few weeks -- but for now, it's fittingly called the STEAM Innovation Center because of its focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics, or "STEAM" careers.

The university just wrapped up the first phase of the project last month, which renovated about a third of the former storage warehouse and gave its facade a major, modern makeover with a focus on energy efficiency. The second phase of construction should wrap up in time for the 2017-18 school year, and a third and final phase, if necessary, would be completed by fall 2018.

A few engineering, art and business-administration classes have begun in the STEAM Innovation Center this semester, giving students a sneak peek of what's to come.

Miguel Pedrozo and Mikayla Knerr, two 19-year-old sophomores majoring in systems engineering, said the center's emphasis on networking and collaboration should someday give them an edge over other job-seekers.

They're also relieved that Otterbein's engineering program, which is in just its second year, will finally have a place to call home. Last year, the students occupied leftover spaces on several floors of another building on campus, and they stored equipment and projects in an instructor's cramped office.

"We won't have to haul our projects up to the fourth floor anymore," Pedrozo joked.

PolymerOhio Inc., a Westerville-based manufacturing extension partner, hopes to move into the STEAM Innovation Center next month and become its first resident business. Ikove Capital Partners, a venture-capital company with offices in Columbus, is to follow.

The partnership was a natural fit, said Bruce Fawcett, PolymerOhio's executive director.

"Anytime I meet with a manufacturer, workforce is always an issue that's discussed," Fawcett said. "Now we'll be able to help them find high-quality students while also enhancing the students' learning experiences."

It's estimated the STEAM Innovation Center will bring about 200 new jobs to central Ohio in the next five years, with a total annual payroll of about $16 million, according to a feasibility study. The projected impact on state and local taxes is about $3.6 million over those five years.

That projected economic growth, and the need to keep well-trained workers in the area, are key reasons that Westerville pledged $1 million to support the project, said Jason Bechtold, the city's development director. The remainder of the project was paid for using university funds, private and corporate donations and $500,000 in state money.

The potential payoff for students is equally as promising.

By 2018, it's projected that the nation will have about 2.4 million openings in STEM jobs, according to research from Georgetown University's Center of Education and the Workforce. More than 90 percent of those positions will require post-secondary education and training.

Integrating art and design into STEM education -- or, simply put, changing STEM to STEAM -- is essential to producing well-prepared, well-rounded employees, said Gary Maul, the director of Otterbein's systems-engineering program. It isn't enough to produce a product that works, he said; presentation and marketability are equally important.

As a result, the STEAM Innovation Center will encourage students from different majors to work together on projects, to hone their teamwork, critical-thinking and problem-solving skills. That bucks the outdated stereotype of engineers isolating themselves in cubicles and not speaking to each other, Maul said.

When the center is complete, it also will extend that collaborative spirit into the community, said Erin Bender, its newly appointed executive director. The public will be able to reserve time to use classrooms and equipment, and educators can host workshops and speaking engagements, she said. A handful of FIRST Robotics Competition teams from local high schools have begun to use the facility, with college faculty members serving as their mentors. Partnerships with K-12 school districts in the area are planned, too.

"Educating students in the future will look very different from the way we do it today, and the STEAM Innovation Center is designed with that in mind," Bender said. "We're already seeing an emphasis on collaboration and open-air offices in the workforce. Our center will give students a better idea of what to expect when they begin their careers."

Want to help name the STEAM Innovation Center? Go to www.otterbein.edu/steamcenter to submit a suggestion. The winner will be announced at 11:30 a.m. Oct. 1 at a ribbon cutting ceremony at the building, 60 Collegeview Road in Westerville.

©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.