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Social Innovation Weekend: Seeking solutions, building better students

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What ideas towards the solution to a problem can you come up with in less than three days? That’s the task set before students taking part in Social Innovation Weekend from March 5-7. The event is a hackathon-style program, open to all Miami University students. Mentors and volunteers will consult with small startup teams to provide insights and feedback as the teams develop new programs/services/products that can help address homelessness and affordable housing.

Co-organizer Dr. Michael Conger said the topics for SIW are chosen for a couple of reasons. “We want something for a topic that's big, but also local.  Then we want something that everybody at Miami can think, ‘Well, I have a perspective on that. I have skills I can bring to that. I have things I could teach other people and that other people could teach me.’”

“I think this is our most ambitious topic yet. In the past four years, we've just getting broader and broader, and that allows for a lot more creativity with the students,” Madelyn Harvey, senior international studies and entrepreneurship major and SIW organizing committee chair, pointed out. “We have more mentors, more students than years past, so we want to have as much creativity and leeway as possible.”

The student teams will attend workshops, hear from experts, and work over a 48-hour period and pitch their ideas to a panel of subject matter experts and startup ecosystem partners at the end of the weekend. Previous Social Innovation Weekends looked for solutions to infant mortality rates in the African-American population, food insecurity, and substance abuse/addiction.

“It’s a high-pressure, high-intensity, jam-packed weekend,” senior interactive media studies and entrepreneurship major and SIW marketing leader Gio Petrelli said. “It just feels good that you can put all of your efforts and talents and everything that you've been learning at Miami toward making an impact really quickly.”

“I think it’s geared toward students that are excited to learn from other people. I really think that's the key point. Whether from mentors, from other students that student teams are put on, there's so much learning that happens, but that only happens if the students are going into the weekend expecting to learn a lot,” Harvey said.

“I think the student who approaches the problem from a different perspective is definitely the one that's going to thrive,” Petrelli pointed out. “Students who really aren't afraid to try the craziest, wackiest idea, something that's just so out of the box. The student who's OK winging it, trying something new.”

More than 50 mentors and volunteers from across the nation will take part in the event, being held virtually for the first time due to the pandemic. Harvey said the virtual nature helped expand the number of experts involved. “People from California, Washington DC, New York, instead of dedicating the time to flying and driving here, can pop in and have a couple hours of actual bonding time with the students and then pop out,” she said.

SIW counts for either 1 credit hour of entrepreneurship (ESP 102: Entrepreneurial Immersion) or 1 credit hour of global health studies (GHS 301: Seminar in Global Health). But organizers believe that students who take part will take away much more than class credit. “I think students will gain the understanding that lots of different people with different skillsets and lots of different perspectives are needed to grapple with issues, because most things in life are big and complicated,” Conger said. “The other thing that I hope they get out of this is some self-discovery and direction. If they’re taking part in Social Innovation Weekend, almost certainly they're thinking, ‘I care about this topic or these things. This is meaningful to me, and I want to do some work in this space.’ But the path to that goal isn’t necessarily as clear-cut as knowing you want to be an accountant.”

Conger said that while SIW is about working to find solutions, it’s also about developing capabilities within the students who take part. “You're not really going to solve this problem in a weekend. It's about building up students so that they can do that hard work over the long term that can make a difference.”

Harvey said that she wants Miami students to know that even though this is an event created through the Department of Entrepreneurship and the Farmer School of Business, it’s not just for business majors. “This is an event for everybody. All different majors, all different backgrounds and expertise. Come into it with as much of an open mind as possible and be willing to learn from each other throughout the weekend.”

Learn more and signup here. Registration deadline is Feb. 26