It’s been an extraordinarily challenging five months, and the students who have been working on the Innovation Incubator project are about to find out whether it’s been worth it.

About thirty-five students and faculty from seven journalism schools around the country are headed to Toronto tomorrow to present their projects at the ONA’s annual conference.

They’ve been working on them since June, when the group first gathered in Ithaca to talk about creation netting, the process we adopted to develop some new and original thinking about — and approaches to – -community news. We figured there was nobody better positioned than college students to think creatively about how to leverage digital technologies and social networking to drive reader connections to local news. And we figured that getting them all together to imagine the possible would inevitably generate big ideas and new ways to put together existing tools that we could then test with real audiences.

So far, so good. The students are ready (nervous, but ready), the faculty feel confident that the outcomes are valuable, and the deans and directors of the seven schools are proud of the progress they’ve made so far.

That said, there’s also no question that it’s been harder than we could ever have imagined, in ways we didn’t expect expect and couldn’t have anticipated. The big ideas turned out to be the easy part; as a friend once told me, the world is full of great ideas, but “God’s in the execution.” And so it has been the case with this project: the interpersonal interaction, the demands of collaboration across time and distance, and the “creative tension” that required students to abandon some ideas and embrace others….those were the real challenges.

That’s the dynamic and insight that we’ll be focusing on in our research in the months to come: How can we create more effective environments in which college students can not only envision but execute original concepts? How can journalism schools become innovation incubators for community news? What are the strategies that work best to help students separate their ego investment and ownership of their own ideas in order to contribute the best thinking to the collective good? And how do we build bridges between the academy and the industry so that journalism schools have a more constructive and productive role to play in the evolution of new journalism content and platforms? That’s the stuff that intrigues those of us who instigated this project.

But for the students, the payoff happens this week. This is the big moment, the event they’ve been working toward: Thursday afternoon, they’ll stand up in front of a full room (we hope) of media professionals to pitch their ideas and look for partners willing to test their projects with real audiences. If all goes well, the hard work, big fights, and intense commitment will have been worth it.

I talked to one of the grad students who participated in the project but who couldn’t make it to Toronto, just to get his take on the experience. His response confirmed the value – and the challenge — of the project. “It was the most miserable and hardest thing I have ever been involved in,” he said, “but it was also the most valuable learning experience of my college career.”

As I said, so far, so good….