National grant helps make ad-hoc affiliation official
SAN RAFAEL — Dominican University of California has launched a new interdisciplinary course linking students in its chemistry and MBA programs, creating an official educational framework for a collaboration that has existed unofficially for several years and helped advance the university’s expertise in biofuels and bio-based lubricant research.
Supported by a $30,000 grant from the National Collegiate Inventors & Innovators Alliance, the program involves two new courses that bring together undergraduate students in chemistry and biology and students in the university’s groundbreaking MBA in Sustainable Enterprise. With additional advising from consultants with the university’s Venture Greenhouse business incubator program, teams focus on development and marketing of a renewable alternative to a traditionally petroleum-based product like fuels, plastics and lubricants.
The program represents a continuing focus on interdisciplinary education at the 2,200-student Dominican University, including collaboration between graduate and undergraduate students, said Dr. Dan Moshavi, dean of Dominican’s school of business and leadership.
“If you think about where the best ideas come from, it’s at the intersection of different disciplines,” Dr. Moshavi said.
The two required courses — “Innovation, Design and Entrepreneurship” and “Marketing Research Strategies” bring together 12 students from both the “Green MBA” and chemistry programs. A consultant is assigned to each of five teams, which collaborate on product and business plan development.
Not all of the work is purely theoretical. While manufacturing materials like advanced polymers is outside the scope of university facilities, teams exploring products like industrial lubricants or oils could potentially manufacture prototypes through Dominican, said Dr. Sibdas Ghosh, professor and chair of the department of natural sciences and mathematics.
“At the end, we have a product. There are very few undergraduate programs like that,” he said.
Biofuels and petroleum alternatives have become an increasing focus for chemistry and biology students at Dominican in recent years, with continuing momentum after an ambitious 2005 undergraduate project to develop instructions for low-cost soap manufacturing in a student’s native Tanzania, said Dr. Kenneth Frost, professor in the department of Natural Sciences and instructor in the new program.
A chemical engineer at Chevron for more than three decades, Dr. Frost said that the success of the soap endeavor lead him to consider projects surrounding a related product — biodiesel, a plant-based fuel that can take the place of petroleum-based diesel.
“It all started with the soap project,” said Dr. Frost. “What can we do with vegetable fat that will make them higher value than in the waste streams?”
As biofuels and related fields began to play an increasing role in course instruction and student projects, others began to take notice. Stig Westling, a Green MBA alum, learned of that push and called on the department of natural sciences for help with a 2008 project that formed the basis of bio-based lubricant manufacturer, Skip to Renew. In his new venture, algae-based product and technology company Urban Algae, Mr. Westling helps to advise students in the interdisciplinary courses about the opportunities available in biofuels and other related products.
“What we’re trying to do now is to create a system for this kind of collaboration to happen,” said John Stayton, co-founder of the Green MBA and director of the Venture Greenhouse.
The first-time program is not without its challenges, which can include the generational differences between sophomore and junior chemistry undergraduates and students in the Green MBA, program organizers said. Yet those intricacies are part of the program’s appeal, with the required courses forcing collaboration across the age and experience spectrum in a manner that emulates the professional world.
“One of the biggest tools we use to increase undergraduate engagement is undergraduate research,” said Dr. Ghosh, “and the business student is learning what it actually takes to produce.”
Topics of instruction include patent law, marketing and the economics of commercialization, organizers said.
While the courses were launched to create an educational opportunity for students, organizers of the new program said that the business incubator now sits on one end of an increasingly robust pipeline for launching business ventures at Dominican.
“We’re viewing this as a pilot, and we’ll consider where to go from there,” said Dr. Moshavi. With a small campus, “we’re regularly exposed to each others’ work, and we try to leverage that.”
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