Case Study: How Illinois State University is Connecting Interdisciplinary Student Teams with Employers


How Illinois State University is Connecting Interdisciplinary Student Teams with Employers

How did ISU gain insight and direction to develop its extracurricular, interdisciplinary project-based student
professional development experience?

Illinois State U logo


Illinois State University recognized that today:

  • Students need to enter the workforce with the experience and skills to navigate ambiguity and collaborate across disciplines
  • Employers seek increasingly to hire students who are skilled at collaboration, working with cross-disciplinary teams, and solving real-world problems for the industry.

Yet the existing model for connecting students with clients (employers) for real-world, experiential-learning projects was not designed optimally to grow these collaborative skills. Such projects were typically course-based and discipline-specific, designed to meet the objectives of a particular course and counting toward that course grade.

In order to recruit multi-disciplinary student teams to meet growing demand from employer clients, the project-coordinating faculty member or center director would reach out to their own (sometimes limited) network of faculty in other colleges and departments. As Jim Jones, executive director of the Katie School of Insurance, recalls, “We would have a client that requested skills in risk management, statistics, agribusiness, computer science, and remote sensing. We would spend a lot of time asking around campus about who might know of some students for the project. It usually worked out, but it was terribly inefficient and time consuming.”

ISU wanted to establish an internal innovation consulting community, to:

  1. Create a virtual hub for promoting cross-disciplinary projects.
  2. Provide students with mentors and learning modules to prepare them to optimize their team project experience.

ISU needed to learn a new model -- and develop a plan -- amid the challenges of continuous declines in state funding and uncertainties over how to proceed with securing physical space and developing program content, whether the offering should be for academic credit or extracurricular, how to structure student-led (rather than faculty-led) projects that would meet client needs, and how to find students, faculty, and staff mentors for the projects.



To begin resolving these uncertainties, Peter Kaufman, Professor of Marketing at ISU, attended Academic Impressions' fall 2015 Developing a Center for Innovation on Campus conference in Cincinnati, which included a site visit to Xavier University’s Innovation Center. Kaufman recalls, “the AI conference was well-timed and provided both broad strategic insights as well as implementation recommendations. It also identified Design Thinking as a potential unifying framework and language to bring together faculty and staff from across the university to focus on innovation.”

Returning to campus, Kaufman shared his insights with several faculty and staff.  They set about learning more about design thinking in an applied student project setting, including an exploratory visit to the nearby Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Recalling lessons from the AI conference and the site visit, Kaufman and his colleagues decided that rather than establish a physical center at the start, they would focus first on developing learning goals and overall program structure and process, and later identify potential "hardware" or physical space needs accordingly.

“The AI conference encouraged a stance of taking quick action to generate early momentum, starting small to ensure success, leveraging the institution's existing strengths or 'secret sauce,' and treating the initiative like a startup within the larger institution.”

- Peter Kaufman, Professor of Marketing, ISU


Following the AI conference and IIT site visit, The ISU team did the following:

  • Outlined the focus of the student learning experience, which is centered on an extracurricular, cross-disciplinary project based professional development experience.
  • Identified skill areas that any student should learn regardless of major which were design thinking, leadership, project management, self-awareness, and conflict resolution.  These were developed into short online modules for students to complete prior to working on their project.
  • Identified, developed and described examples of potential projects and how students would be selected, organized, and mentored along with the time horizon for completing experience which is on an annual cycle.
  • Built a website to convey the experience including projects to engage in, rationale for participation, and explanation of how students and mentors could participate.
  • Developed marketing ideas to drive students to the website.



Thanks to the learning that occurred at and after the AI conference, ISU’s Innovation Consulting Community has had a very strong start:

  • Year 1 saw 38 students from 18 different disciplines consulting on 9 projects, with 17 faculty and staff involved as project mentors.
  • Year 2 is seeing 72 students from over 29 disciplines on 16 projects, including both a mix of community engagement projects and partnerships with MLB and major companies.

Beyond the numbers:

  • Faculty and staff from across the campus are finding additional opportunities in which to collaborate.
  • Faculty now have new lower risk opportunities to engage with organizations and gain greater experience that they can apply in the classroom and/or in their research.
  • Students who may not have had the opportunity to gain professional work experience in specific areas (e.g., professional sports, sustainability, robotics, autonomous vehicles, etc.) or functional areas (marketing, app development, etc.) now do so at no financial cost to them.
  • Local alumni who are practitioners in relevant project areas can engage more with the university and support as project mentors and offer short face to face workshops.
  • The university has an additional unique program to showcase to potential students and potential donors.
  • Organizational and community problems have a greater chance of finding a solution.

"The formal evaluations, and informal feedback, were incredibly positive from faculty, industry, and students. This exceeded our expectations for the first year.”

- Jim Jones, Executive Director, The Katie School of Insurance, ISU

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For inspiration and examples of effective models, check out our conferences, webcasts, and articles on academic innovations.