Innovation Academy students crowded UF’s Rion Ballroom to prove themselves UF’s most worthy innovators.
Faculty and alumni from the program’s last decade went to the event to see 28 groups of students’ solutions to the question: How might we effectively engage residents in a 21st century live/work/play community?
Students were given eight weeks to work on their projects and learned how to pitch ideas, develop graphic design skills and build prototypes in the process for the annual Catalyst Summer B event in the Reitz Union event space Friday.
The event celebrated the program’s 10th anniversary and was the second catalyst held since its return from its online format due to COVID-19; the program’s first event back was its Catalyst Summer A June 10.
Sierra Pollard, an adjunct faculty member with the Innovation Academy, was in its 2013 inaugural class. The program didn’t completely understand what the word innovation meant at its inception, she said. UF’s Innovation Academy website now describes an innovative mindset as one developed through entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership and ethics, and, she said, has more students, technology and opportunities.
“While we are helping teach some of the basic foundations, the students are really the ones to bring the creativity and the excitement together,” Pollard said.
Pollard attended UF as an undergraduate and went to VCU for her masters in innovation, so she is well-versed in the industry and feels proud when she sees students working together to make innovative projects ten years later.
Alexander Dantoulis, a 19-year-old UF political science sophomore, and his group developed guiding lights to address this year’s question.
The lights are LED strips potentially sprinkled across Gainesville that would depict messages based on their color. City residents would be informed of event locations or given warnings of a near emergency based on the color and direction the lights flicker. For example, he said blue lights could lead people to a new movie premier as the lights move toward the theater.
Though the project is not applicable to his study in political science, he said it will help him communicate openly with others in an interview or an idea pitch.
“If I can market a product, then I can market myself,” Dantoulis said.
His group won two awards at the catalyst event: the Bright Idea Award and the Judge’s Choice Award, which is considered the greatest honor.
Students in Innovation Academy chose to apply to the program simultaneously with UF’s regular application. They typically have classes over Spring and Summer semesters and normally take a break in the Fall. Students in Innovation Academy minor in innovations and have a choice of 25 majors over eight colleges; the group is diverse with their academia.
Jeff Citty has served as the Innovation Academy director since its inception and said the program is special because of its interdisciplinary nature. Students work with people from other majors and use their individual strengths to build a project.
The program partnered with San Felasco Tech City, an innovation development site, in Alachua to develop this year’s project theme — to engage and provide solutions for the local community. Citty said students can come up with different approaches to the same prompt and receive support from professionals at the same time.
“I know a lot of companies are looking for students who have creativity,” Citty said.
Stella Kamensky, a 19-year-old UF marketing sophomore, worked with her group to make a hydroponic labyrinth that would boost community morale and work efficiency. Her group brainstormed, created mood boards and constructed 3D models to come up with the project.
Kamensky cherishes the experience because of the relationships built through the process. She said the program holds a tight-knit group, and she knew the names of most people in the room.
“I would just go around and embrace everyone,” Kamensky said.
Hallie Zimmerman, a 27-year-old Innovation Academy alumna from the class of 2018, returned to the catalyst event to speak to students and provide meaningful feedback on their projects.
Zimmerman said the program gave her opportunities to be involved in and a community to be a part of. She was part of the first group to represent UF at a statewide hackathon when she was an Innovation Academy student.
She was in Atlanta when COVID-19 first struck, and many of her colleagues struggled to adapt. Zimmerman, however, felt comfortable and smoothly transitioned to the more technological environment because of her time in the Innovation Academy.
She noticed some projects were similar to each other and told groups not to give up on their ideas as the catalyst concludes. She said groups could work together in the future and combine their ideas to form game-changing projects that could impact communities nationally and globally.
“They work so hard,” she said. “They should continue this, and I want to urge them to do that.”
Their skills and fostered relationships will prove valuable post graduation; the experience is more than another box checked off their degree audits.
Kyle Bumpers is a fourth-year journalism major with a specialization in sports and media. He is the Gators men's tennis beat reporter for The Alligator. When off the clock, he watches too many movies and writes too many Letterboxd reviews.