This program asks students to solve real-world problems

Qualities associated with innovation—like creative thinking, risk-taking, and persuasive communication skills—are in high demand on the job market. They signal to employers that your graduates can adapt and work effectively in any situation.

But only 36% of students believe they'll graduate with the skills and knowledge to be successful in the workplace. Employers are also skeptical about the ability of recent grads to apply their knowledge to real-world problems.

James Madison University (JMU) has designed an educational model to help students learn how to innovate and tackle real-world problems, reports Beth McMurtrie for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The model, called JMU X-Labs, takes students through the long—and often frustrating—process of developing new ways of thinking about complex problems, writes McMurtrie.

JMU X-Labs offers courses on topics such as drones, foreign policy, and community innovations. Students might be tasked with solving homelessness or building a drone to help with conservation efforts.

During the course, students read widely, interview extensively, and learn research techniques. This exploration will, ideally, help students define the problem they want to tackle, identify potential solutions, create prototypes, and test them. The course doesn't have a textbook, lectures, or right answers, reports McMurtrie.

"It’s about as far away from traditional chalk and talk as you can get," says Seán McCarthy, an associate English professor and JMU X-Labs faculty member. That can be an adjustment for students.

"They tell you all these things and they want you to do all this crazy big stuff and I was like, this is silly, we can’t solve homelessness," recalls Lindsey McLucas, who took the JMU X-Labs' community innovations course. "I’m used to professors telling me what they want, and I do what they want, and I get a grade," she adds. "Now it was very much working with them and trying to figure out a solution to a problem nobody had a solution to."

Related: 6 strategies to find—and support—your most innovative instructors

In the beginning, students struggle to think big or dig deeper into the root causes of the problem they're trying to solve, says McCarthy. Students also wrestle with other problems, like team dynamics, failed ideas, and creative blocks.

And that's what faculty members expect, writes McMurtrie. Struggle and failure are important elements of the problem-solving process.

But by the end of the course, students will have gained knowledge and skills that will serve them five or 10 years down the line, says Patrice Ludwig, an assistant professor of biology and JMU X-Labs faculty member.

For instance, students learn how to communicate their ideas to different audiences. Throughout the course, students present and defend their research and ideas to faculty and classmates. They're asked to explain their thought process to teammates who may be from different disciplines.

Nick Sipes, who took a JMU X-Labs course on drones, says his experience taught him how to communicate with others. During the course, he says he worked alongside people who were good at things he wasn't, like industrial design. He says the course pushed him to communicate what he was doing to his team and to the outside world.

"In real life," he says, "no client is ever going to come up to you and say, 'Hey, will you build me a robot? Don’t tell me anything at all. Don’t talk to me. I just want this robot to show up on my doorstep in six months.'"

For McLucas, the course helped her learn "to think in a whole new way," she says. "There was no right answer. Some of them were bad and some of them were good. The main thing was there wasn’t an answer the professor was trying to lead me to" (McMurtrie, Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/10).


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