This fall, North Carolina Central University (NCCU) graduate students Maya Hamer and Christopher Lawson plan to host a three-day, research conference titled Soaring into STEM.
Hamer and Lawson are in the NCCU Information Science master’s degree program, and Hamer is also getting her Master of Business Administration degree. They are the institution’s first University Innovation Fellows (UIF) cohorts, joining other college students across the country in the prestigious program sponsored by Stanford University.
The UIF program teaches students about design-centered thinking while empowering them to become change agents for their respective universities. Design thinking is a way to define and solve tough challenges.
NCCU applied for the UIF program in fall 2021, explained Siobahn Day Grady, Ph.D., an assistant professor of library and information sciences, and faculty champion for the UIF program.
“A lot of the heavy lifting is on the student side because it’s essentially a student-led initiative through which they get to showcase their innovative and entrepreneurial skills,” Grady said. “Maya and Christopher were actually working with Stanford University on the weekends in addition to doing their NCCU schoolwork.”
The UIF program is an example of how NCCU delivers on The Eagle Promise, which in part guarantees that the university's student scholars will have meaningful opportunities to practice leadership.
Hamer, Lawson and Grady attended an in-person conference for the Innovation University Fellows program at Stanford University in March, when fellows across the nation met to discuss their projects and to network. Faculty champions were also on hand to support their students and strategize over ways to better assist them.
“Through new funding, Stanford is now able to offer historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) funding to participate in the University Innovation Fellows program,” says Grady. “Earlier this year, the HBCU cohorts were able to finally meet in person. It was Maya and Christopher’s first time on Stanford’s campus and mine as well, and we had a wonderful time. They got a chance to interact with other HBCU students as well as students from all over the world.”
Stanford University covered all expenses. Hamer and Lawson were chosen to represent NCCU, in part, because they work with Grady in the LAIER, or Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence and Equity Research. In the summer of 2020, Grady took the Inaugural Teaching and Learning Studio online design thinking course through Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, which likely helped put NCCU on Stanford’s radar.
Despite the wonderful opportunities presented by the Innovation University Fellows program, Hamer wasn’t sure she wanted to participate initially.
“I was hesitant at first because I’m in graduate school earning two degrees and also work in the LAIER,” she said. “But Angela Jones, who heads our UIF program, and Dr. Grady made it so easy for me. I was worried about taking on such a challenge, and the name Stanford itself was a little bit daunting. It took some time for me to realize I can do it.”
Lawson said when approached by Grady about the UIF program, he knew immediately he wanted to participate.
“I’m always open to challenges and new opportunities, and Maya and I ultimately thought it’d be great to be the first NCCU students to participate in Stanford’s UIF program, so it all just aligned.”
As part of their UIF duties, Lawson and Hamer met every Saturday for six weeks, then periodically throughout the week during the spring 2022 semester. What they’ve come up with is a three-day, research conference named purposefully to play on NCCU’s Eagle mascot. The conference will consist of a research symposium, food drive and career fair centered around cultivating and fostering long-lasting relationships between students, faculty and staff.
“I started thinking about all of the conferences Chris and I were going to and submitting papers for and thought it’d be cool if we didn’t have to submit a paper for a conference or go somewhere but instead could host a conference and bring the opportunity to students at NCCU,” Hamer says. “We want to give it more of an academic flair."
“Part of our challenge as University Innovation Fellows is to look at the needs of our campus and determine where we can provide some innovation,” Hamer continued. “We noticed there wasn’t a high attendance at the career fair we had on campus, so we thought if we paired a career fair with speakers, conference presenters and campus resources that might inspire people to come out and be more involved by going to the booths and talking with prospective employers.”
Lawson says Jon Gant, Ph.D., dean of NCCU’s School of Library and Information Sciences (SLIS), Deborah E. Swain, Ph.D., a professor in SLIS, and other faculty and students met with them about the upcoming conference. He and Hamer are also reaching out to fellows at other HBCUs to ask whether they’d like to participate in NCCU’s conference.
“Soaring into STEM isn’t just meant for NCCU but is meant for other HBCU students and the surrounding community,” Lawson says. “We expect, when it’s all said and done, to produce a top-notch conference that will simultaneously showcase the valuable knowledge Maya, Dr. Grady and I gained while attending the conference at Stanford University and help students learn how to become critical thinkers, which is key in today’s global society.”