Through a rare integration of the University of Iowa Colleges of Engineering and Business, a new special program, STEM Innovator, has emerged.

Co-founded by Director of the Jacobson Institute for Youth Entrepreneurship Dawn Bowlus and Leslie Flynn, a clinical assistant professor of education, the program aims to help teachers in K-12 classrooms develop entrepreneurial thinking in their students.

Kids, especially in STEM classrooms are unable to work on problems that are of interest to them, Flynn said. They could come up with innovative solutions on their own, but they have no opportunities to do so.

“Kids have real problems and have really good ideas on how to solve them,” Flynn said. “And we know that students that work on authentic problems in their communities are more interested in their STEM classes.”

STEM Innovator gives kids the opportunities; many curricula no longer allow for creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and risk-taking — all essential skills — and this program seeks to integrate them.

When schools come to them, Flynn, Bowlus, and their colleagues provide assessments, activities, models, and guidance on how to use the program.

Because there is no set curriculum, the program is widely applicable and is tailored to fit in with any school’s mission, community, and goals.

The program was designed with a number of factors in mind, Flynn said. Interviews with more than 40 businesses in the community say that creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and risk-taking are all highly desired traits; STEM Innovator provides an opportunity to build all those in the normal curriculum.

STEM Innovator also allows students to really use their strengths — students who are great with graphic design, for example, can work on the presentations; there is no need to be talented in every subject to do very well, which can be a relief for many students.

Kids in the program identify an issue in their lives and work with community members and UI professors to help solve it. They also present their ideas and progress six times a semester — that way, they receive constant feedback to improve their project.

Teams also work on very different problems.

“We have a group of girls who identified their problem as when you go outside and your windshield is covered in ice, it’s such a pain to scrape it off in the morning,” said research assistant Amanda Solomon, who works under Flynn. “They wanted to create some sort of chemical agent.”

They approached some chemists, but when they later interviewed community members, they found many were worried about the environment.

“Now, they are meeting with engineers in the College of Engineering, and they’re making a mechanical device,” Flynn said. The girls — as well as every other student in the program — learned that they do not need to have all the knowledge; they need to collaborate.

“[Another] team is working on teen-distracted driving, and they’re coming up with a solution for this,” Flynn said. “It’s perfect because it’s their age group, and they’re partnering with the College of Engineering here and the National Driving Simulator. One of their proposed solutions is to make simulator studies where they put kids in these dangerous situations and shows how [texting] affects their driving.”

The program currently is involved with 58 schools and 27,000 students mostly concentrated in the Midwest; however, because it has partnered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it will bring the program to a national level.

Students are coming up with their own solutions, and so they need to “learn about what is intellectual property,” Bowlus said. Partnering with the U.S. Trade and Patent Office allows them to do that — it also helps the program spread as both organizations intend to present its mission and findings.

“Kids aren’t seeing the connection between STEM and their future life and why it is important to them,” Flynn said. “When you do this [program] and solve a real problem, you help make that connection.”