Cultivating Innovative Thinking Skills in STEM Education

Sadan Kulturel-Konak
Professor of Management Information Systems
Pennsylvania State University- Berks Campus

Need: As a group of faculty members who have organized student entrepreneurship and innovation competitions and programs (ICPs) and coached many student teams for various competitions, we have observed first-hand how transformational the experience has been for our students. We deem ICPs as experiential learning opportunities that allow students to quickly test their skills and knowledge, push them beyond their comfort zones, encourage them to take risks, and provide a safe place to try and fail, as failures can be seen as part of the learning process. Therefore, we firmly believe that ICPs play an important role in educating the next generation of innovators. Despite their invaluable learning benefits, however, the literature lacks a theoretical body of knowledge on the influence of ICPs on the educational experience. The proposed research focuses on transformations in students’ mindsets toward innovation. We will adopt the Transformative Learning Theory (TLT) to explain the processes through which students develop an innovation mindset and how participation in ICPs is transformative in terms of their personal and professional aspirations. We also aim to investigate the aspects of ICPs that facilitate these processes. Guiding Question: We will seek answers to the following research questions: How can we measure transformations in students’ mindsets toward innovation? Do students become more open-minded because of participating in ICPs? What are the roles of various attributes such as mentoring, networking, and industry partnerships to shape student experiences and outcomes? Will incorporating more entrepreneurship components in ICPs improve student outcomes? What are the best practices for engaging students from diverse backgrounds in ICPs? How do we make sure that ICPs do not unintentionally exclude students or other members of our community? Outcomes: Our research model synthesizes the TLT and KEEN’s Curiosity, Connections, and Creating Value (3Cs) Framework and our outcome variables are “having deeper self-awareness” and “becoming more open-minded.” The TLT will be applied to ICPs for the first time in this project. Therefore, we will develop a research model based on the TLT, and the proposed model will be an important intellectual outcome of this project. Therefore, our project will enhance the impact of ICPs on cultivating students’ innovative mindsets, and institutions may adopt the recommended best practices for organizing ICPs, and recruiting and mentoring students.Broader Impacts: Although the project focuses on ICPs, the proposed model and the TLSIM can also be applied to a broader set of co-curricular and informal learning experiences such as internships and undergraduate research. Thus, the expected research outcomes can promote fundamental research in other STEM learning environments. Investigating the roles and processes of ICPs in cultivating the innovation mindset will provide an understanding of how ICPs could be better integrated within existing STEM curricula – thereby helping more students develop the innovative mindset goals described in the NSF’s ‘Big Ideas for Future NSF Investment.’ Promoting more inclusive ICPs will also automatically enable ICPs focusing on social impact to have more substantial impact outcomes.


Abdullah Konak, Pennsylvania State University- Berks Campus, Reading, PA; Khanjan Mehta, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, PA; David R Schneider, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY