Shark Tank: PSU’s Experience in Academia’s Version of Reality Competition Show

At the joint National Associate of Land Grant and Public Universities (APLU) and Urban Serving Universities (USU) annual conference this week I had the pleasure of “pitching” an idea for PSU.  The competition was to showcase ideas universities had to create better alignment between what a student learns and what employers need. The Innovation Pitch Challenge session was modeled on the television show Shark Tank (which I admit, I had not seen until we were selected for this competition).

Our Idea
In September, we, along with dozens of universities, submitted an idea. Ours was to create a professional master’s program in Industrial Mathematics; a proposal that had been originally submitted by the mathematics and statistics department for the Provost Challenge. PSU was among 11 universities selected to make a pitch at the conference. Each participant had five minutes for the presentation.
Big Thanks
Mathematics Professors Jay Gopalakrishnan and Gerardo Lafferriere were the brains behind the idea for the program and the content of the script.  Thanks also to Professor Devon Allen in the School of Theatre and Film who spent a session coaching me on how to memorize the script (which I did and now can recite it for anyone!), and to Mark Wubbold in the President’s Office for helping me make math flash cards of the mastery and competencies handed out to the judges.
The Pitch
Here is my pitch. I share it because the ideas your colleagues have for this proposal is exciting. Please note the script was not written to be published, but to be delivered verbally.
I want to start with a question: What does 5x5x5x5x5 equal?  A well-formulated question with a precise answer, 3125.  But wait, in rare cases are problems so easily defined or so easily solved. Imagine training that would prepare employees already in the work place to address computationally intensive problems in science and industry.
I have a proposal for a professional master’s degree in industrial mathematics.  A program that meets business and industry’s need for dealing with complex, discontinuous and disruptive change. An academic program that lies in that void between basic undergraduate math programs and our research-focused mathematical doctoral programs.  A program that takes the concepts and fundamentals and applies them– not to the well-formulated questions– but rather to identifying messy questions that exist in our knowledge-based industries.
Think about it–practitioners trained in logical thinking within a business setting; employees that are able to effectively use contemporary computational and statistical tools.  A program that has higher level skills grounded in mathematical thinking and theory, but not one that trains someone to be a mathematician. Just last week, I had four business dean candidates tell me that computational and analytical skills are what employers want most.
I get this. I am not a mathematician. My background is cartography and GIS. I have been a faculty member for over 3 decades and my research and teaching has led me to understand how to deal with change and complex problems.  But I have to say, had I become a practitioner early in my career I would have so benefited from a program like this.  Not only would I have had the skills to map things, but I would have had the perspective to conceive of potential complex interrelationships that go beyond the lines on the map.
We’ve done the math—by working with employers we’ve identified 5 mastery areas where a student would gain 5 competencies each to create this customized program. 5×5 in this case is not 25. Learning is exponential —I can truthfully say it is 5 to the power of 5. One of the most powerful forces in the world is the exponential power of mathematics.  Regardless of how knowledge changes—there is one universal constant—math.  Employees need these skills in their back pocket.
This program is targeted for people already with jobs as engineers, supply chain managers, social entrepreneurs, and even cartographers.  The program will be delivered online, competency based, have no credits, will count experience, and is learner paced.
The number one thing employers are asking for are employees that can innovate. This program delivers on that. We will produce practitioners with mathematical knowledge as applied to their broader skill set.  The saying “do the math” exists for a reason. The evidence shows–Math is a constant no matter what disruptions take place –you all know this, you’ve done the math– at the heart of all innovation lies computational thinking.
We have the experience to design this program in less than 12 months—Portland State has just innovated over a dozen large-scale curricular projects in 6-12 months through a university-wide crowdsourcing effort called rethink PSU.
We are asking for $5,000, but wait, per each of the 5 mastery areas –do the math—5×5 –we are asking for a total of $25,000. Thank you.
The Many Wins
Unfortunately, we did not win the competition.  But we do have some wins to show for it.  A number of participants and members of the audience thought the idea our mathematics faculty had was “brilliant.”  I learned a lot about the potential this program could have for PSU, and Gerardo’s great sense of humor helped make for a good pitch.  And, upon getting the news that we had not won, I received a great email from mathematics saying:
“All that energy you brought to this effort has energized us and the proposal. None of this effort was wasted. Thank you again.”
This kind of creative thinking on the part of faculty is part of PSU’s DNA. My thank you to Jay, Gerardo and their colleagues!

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