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New Minor Lets Students Chart Their Own Path, Solve Urban Problems With Technology

Smart House Rendering
The Drexel Smart House is just one area where students can work on projects as part of the new Interdisciplinary Smart Initiatives minor.

February 19, 2014

Since 2006, Drexel’s Smart House initiative has been working to reinvent how people live in urban environments in the 21st century. Now Drexel students have the opportunity to tackle the issues of modern urban living using their research ideas, as part of their course of study.

The newly approved Interdisciplinary Smart Initiatives (INSI) minor will allow students from across the University to plan and complete multidisciplinary projects that use technology to solve problems related to urban communities. The new minor will be housed within the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, but its students can come from any undergraduate program at Drexel.

D.S. Nicholas, the minor’s director, along with the other two co-directors of the Drexel Smart Initiatives program — Shivanthi Anandan, PhD, from the Department of Biology and Joan Weiner, PhD, from LeBow College of Business — hopes students do come from all over. As long as students want the chance to produce an innovative, tangible project, they can join in — whether they’re studying biology, engineering, dance or something else.

Few academic programs like this exist around the country, she said.

“It’s kind of a specific student who will be interested in this,” Nicholas said. “It’s not every student. But I think there are a lot of students who are looking for something like this — a new kind of program that allows them to be entrepreneurial and inventive.”

The idea for the INSI minor came out of a desire to create an academic program focused on Smart House projects. But ultimately the Drexel Smart Initiatives leaders decided not to tie the new minor directly to the Smart House, allowing students to perhaps create projects tied to the ExCITe Center, the Dornsife Center for Neighborhood Partnerships or other units if they wish.

The directors hope the minor will spark students to take risks and create meaningful projects that might not quite fit into other academic programs, leading them down new roads.

“Maybe it leads them to a master’s degree,” Nicholas said, “or maybe it leads them to a patent, or maybe it leads them into an entrepreneurial project. It’s meant to be something that leads you somewhere.”

It will also give students the opportunity to bring an entrepreneurial, creative flavor to their middle years at Drexel.

“I think it builds a bridge between the really in-depth freshman and senior experiences that are the norm here at Drexel,” Nicholas said.

Some examples of the types of projects that might fit, she said, would include a system for an indoor urban garden and the lightweight green roof system designed by Smart House researchers.

Drexel has traditionally been a discipline-oriented institution, Nicholas said, and the INSI minor is designed to encourage students to break through disciplinary boundaries. So the Smart Initiatives directors don’t want to create too many restrictions on what students might be able to create.

“We’d like to keep it open,” Nicholas said.