It was a few days before the end of the fall 2011 semester, and a friend at a small southern university was bemoaning the lack of innovative spirit among her students. She’d built in an entrepreneurial module into her class, but only a small percentage of the students took the bait to even try to come up with a business idea.

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ASU’s Cronkite School of Journalism

By contrast, on that very same day, my office was buzzing with students seemingly in no hurry to pack up for the holidays and head home. And, interestingly, only one of them was my actual student. One was a Cronkite School of Journalism freshman who had heard me speak to her class and wanted to run an idea past me. A Cronkite sophomore had a major media company interested in a Microsoft Word plug-in he had come up with and wanted to make sure it was actually doable. Another was a business major at Arizona State University’s Carey School who needed some advice on developing an iPad application that he got $5,000 in seed money to build. An ASU engineering major wanted to make sure he could get on my schedule before the end of the year to talk through plans for his new business for the coming year.

As I was looking into the earnest faces of the students who paraded in and out of my office that day, with their Power Point presentations and legal yellow pads filled with sketches for their big ideas, I thought about what made the difference between my friend’s institution of higher education and my own.

encouraging innovation

At ASU, innovation and entrepreneurship are being pushed everywhere you go. Funding contests abound such as the Edson Student Entrepreneurship Initiative, which funds up to $20,000 per student team; the ASU Innovation Challenge, in which each student team can win up to $10,000 for an idea; the Performing Arts Venture Experience gives away up to $5,000 for student ideas, and the new 10,000 Solutions provides up to $10,000 to fund good ideas from students, staff, faculty and community members on how to impact local and global communities.

Additionally, Cronkite School students (and faculty) are encouraged to submit ideas for Knight News Challenge and J-Lab Women Entrepreneurs grants, and those winners are heralded as much as winners of journalism contests.

Professors at Cronkite and other schools bake pitch session into their syllabi so students are thinking of the practical as well as the theoretical. I recently sat in on a pitch session at the College of Nursing and Health Innovation where nutrition and health majors were trying to answer two questions with fresh ideas: How do we get Americans to drink more water, and how do we get sedentary office workers to move more?

The university also tries to make it easier for like-minded entrepreneurs to find each other. Each of the four ASU campuses have Changemaker Centers where students from different majors can hang out and kick around the “what if” questions. I’ve always kept an open door policy at my own lab, Cronkite’s Digital Media and Entrepreneurship Lab, where students from any major can pop in to talk, and they do. In the past academic year, I’ve helped a public policy major think through an iPhone app to help track lost pets and a social work major create a proposal for a volunteer matching site for high school students and non-profits. Journalists for local media companies stop by to hash out ideas as well, and I am really excited about a couple of projects in the works.

University President Michael Crow employs Entrepreneurs-in-Residence who help student startups get their footing but who also help faculty working on innovation and entrepreneurship at such a large university find and support each other. It helps that professors at the College of Technology and Innovation know that I’m looking for Objective C engineers to hire or that faculty at the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning might be interested in collaborating on a mapping project.

like minds unite

Lastly, like minds like being around each other. At Cronkite, we’ve hosted News Foo for two years running, and a fall Where Camp attracted several dozens of data nerds for a weekend hack fest. Cronkite students are encouraged to attend local startup weekends around the area and conferences out at the university’s Sky Song business incubator. It was at such a startup weekend last spring that one of my graphic design students hacked together his latest venture that is attracting angel investments; a few weeks ago, he dropped out of school to move to Silicon Valley to give it a try.

Several adjunct professors at Cronkite are working on startups, and the school employs both a technologist-in-residence and an entrepreneur-in-residence. Next door to my lab, a startup Network, Magicdust Television, has launched a hybrid digital media/television show called RightThisMinute that is produced in the Cronkite building and employs Cronkite students.

So it’s no wonder that a lot of students at Cronkite and other ASU schools have the entrepreneurship bug, and especially a penchant for social entrepreneurship. Yeah, it’s a cold, cruel world and a god-awful economy, but the message over here, at least, is that such a reality only provides another opportunity to do something about it.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Nick Bastian.