Behind the success: Aggies Invent

It’s not a pitch competition. It’s not a hackathon. It’s simply in a class of its own. Aggies Invent at Texas A&M University has found a way to create an innovative experience where students come together from across the university to create solutions and prototypes in just 48 hours.

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Each Aggies Invent revolves around a relevant theme, ranging from medical devices to internet of things to STEM education. The themes allow students to gain vital experience and knowledge in a field outside their majors. Throughout the weekend, student teams design a solution to their selected problem and then compete for first, second and third place awards of $1,000, $750 and $500.

The 48-hour window begins on a Friday evening and ends on a Sunday evening. Each Aggies Invent is divided into four phases: The Dance, The Design, The Doing and The Deal. All four phases represent different life cycles within the engineering design process, bolstering students’ understanding of how to take a product from start to finish. By the end of the weekend, students must provide a 10-minute presentation, including a 90-second video, to pitch their device to a panel of expert judges, ranging from faculty to industry representatives. Beyond challenging their engineering skills, it challenges their communication skills and introduces them to business principles, such as identifying a value proposition, pitching to investors and customer validation.

“Aggies Invent allows a student to be singularly focused on a problem while being part of a multi-integrated team,” said Dr. John E. Hurtado, associate dean, engineering academic and student affairs.  “Engineering students find themselves surrounded by teammates from different colleges and at various education levels, and that immersion allows each student to gain appreciation for their skills and the skills of others.”

The entirety of the event takes place at the Engineering Innovation Center (EIC) on campus. The EIC is a 20,000-square foot maker space that contains a full fabrication shop, a modern prototyping lab, equipment checkout library, 30-plus student technicians and two full-time staff members. Students have complete access to any necessary equipment throughout the event.

The History
The innovator behind the sensation is Rodney Boehm, director of the newly formed engineering entrepreneurship program and associate professor of practice. Boehm formally launched Aggies Invent in August 2014, but the idea had been in the back of his mind since the start of his career. One of Boehm’s successes as a young professional was brainstormed in less than 48 hours with a coworker while traveling. This intensive innovation period stuck with him and later inspired the concept of helping students to experience the complete design cycle in one weekend.

Boehm noted that engineering students can get weighed down with advanced engineering courses and lose track of their end goal. Aggies Invent allows students a chance to apply their coursework in a new and different way and to understand what it feels like to be part of an engineering team completing a project for a client. It gives them one weekend to break from their usual routine and experience something unique and inspiring.

The Impact
Since the inaugural Aggies Invent, 18 events have been held on campus with more than 800 students having participated. Students came from every department in engineering, in addition to every college within the university. But it’s more than just the numbers that set Aggies Invent apart from other programs on campus, it’s the real-world exposure it provides to the students.

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“It had an overwhelmingly positive impact on not only the rest of my undergraduate studies but on my career, introducing me to many of the concepts that I now use as a consultant on an agile development team for Accenture,” said Melinda McClure, a former student and Aggies Invent participant.

Boehm’s goal for Aggies Invent is to better prepare students for how they’ll work after graduation. Engineers need to function in teams, work with deadlines and with business practices; the structure of Aggies Invent helps guide students to be more successful with those principles. He wanted to create a space where students can experience the entire design cycle, work with industry mentors and not be afraid to take a risk or fail in the process. Hurtado agrees that Aggies Invent helps students transition into the workforce.

“Aggies Invent is essentially creative thinking for an engineering purpose,” said Hurtado. “Students gain experience in stretching their engineering knowledge to create solutions and develop prototypes.”

As the program has developed, recruiters and engineering companies nationwide have taken notice and joined in theprocess. Companies get to work hands-on with students and see the young talent through sponsoring, mentoring and judging the weekend activities. They’re given a unique viewpoint to the students and can start the recruiting process right in the EIC.

“I was really impressed by the ability of the students to use the Aggies Invent process to come together, evaluate a problem, propose solutions, plan and develop in such a short period of time,” Cathy Wicks, Texas Instruments university program manager.  

The Future
Aggies Invent is now moving beyond College Station through special events and partnerships with other universities. It will be implemented at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi and Texas A&M University at Qatar, but their biggest venture so far has been to South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas.

The program made a special appearance at SXSW as “Texas A&M Invents for an Intelligent Future” within the university’s “Texas A&M House.”  Twelve students worked for two days to develop technology to make an intelligent future a reality in front of an international audience. They competed in a preliminary competition on campus to earn their spots at SXSW. At the completion, all teams either had filed or would be filing for provisional patents on their innovations.

As Aggies Invent has exhibited tremendous growth and interest, the Texas A&M College of Engineering has developed [U] Invent, a program that allows other schools to bring Aggies Invent to their campuses. Currently, [U] Invent has been implemented at Arizona State University and will be held at Kansas State University in 2018.

Aggies Invent is expanding and the program alumni have continued to flourish with their innovations post-event. Currently, four teams have filed for or attained provisional patents for designs created during an Aggies Invent weekend. 

“I’m most excited in the trajectory changes we see in our students, their confidence to present, their exposure to other skills and their gained exposure to other majors,” said Boehm. “That’s what we’re all about.”