U. of C.’s Prototype for Success program seeks to grow diversity in STEM’s future leaders

U. of C.’s Prototype for Success program seeks to grow diversity in STEM’s future leaders

The laughter and conversation at Hyde Park’s Polsky Center on a recent April evening was infectious. The boisterous scene centered on uncooked spaghetti, marshmallows and tape.

More than two dozen University of Chicago freshmen were given a 10-minute challenge to build a tower with 20 sticks of spaghetti, and one yard of Scotch tape. When completed, the tower should stand on its own and be able to support one nondeformed marshmallow on top. The team with the tallest tower that could hold the marshmallow wins.

The group that contained River Forest resident, Gia Fisher, Johannesburg, South Africa resident Anqi Qu and Springfield, Missouri, resident, Emmett Reid won. They were all smiles after their brainstorming and collaborative session.

“We ran into several problems along the way, had to think on our feet and make it up as we go,” Reid said. “Our ephemeral structure currently looks like it broke under its own weight, but that’s OK. It got the job done. We did not think this would work out, but it did.”

The challenge is just one exercise in the curriculum for the three-year extracurricular program Prototype for Success, which gives early and continued support to students interested in the intersection of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and entrepreneurship. Open to incoming U. of C. freshmen, the program encourages applications from students of color and female students, both underrepresented populations in STEM fields.

Prototype for Success is a partnership between the university’s Office of Career Advancement, the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. The program offers specialized workshops, funded internships and research/technical skill training. Throughout the program, participants receive career preparation assistance and mentoring from employers, entrepreneurs and experts within the partnering departments. Students are also introduced to Polsky’s Fabrication Lab, where they will design, build and pitch an object that would be useful to other first-year students. Prototype for Success’ curriculum and programming culminates in students’ senior year, where a capstone project and presentation is produced.

Meredith Daw, associate vice president and executive director of U. of C.’s Office of Career Advancement, said the idea for the program stemmed from employers wanting this type of skill set and students who wanted to do something entrepreneurial but needed a scientific discipline lens. Daw said program participants were chosen through an application process, each person demonstrated interest in emerging technologies, entrepreneurial potential and interdisciplinary thinking on their college essays and were invited to apply.

“One of the things that we really believe in the career office that underpins everything we do is learning by doing, giving students a chance to not just hear passively about a career field, but actually participate in a field,” Daw said. “They’re working in teams, trying to solve a problem. It’s all the things we’re looking for, as we think about having scientists who are also entrepreneurial. It’s all about helping students not just get to college and through, the real focus is on how do you make sure students graduate with great outcomes.”

Dan Sachs, executive director of education and programs at the Polsky Center, says the program is less about creating the next Elon Musk or cranking out a bunch of startups and more about building successful human beings. He says the program is all about engaging students early on and fostering an entrepreneurial spirit in a way that has practical application they can apply to whatever field the student is interested in. Sachs calls the program a “seamless marriage between entrepreneurial thinking and business school training, and innovation and research at the university.”

“Our goal is to develop concrete, consistent pathways for students who typically don’t see a lot of heroes that look like them in this space — to be able to take advantage of everything from networks to mentorship to internships and have that develop over time,” Sachs said. “The long-term hope and expectation is to build the next generation of leaders that look like the country, one that is diverse and based on equitable opportunity.”

This inaugural cohort has been meeting in person for two-hour workshops since January. Participant Eliram Reyes-Powell is a molecular engineering major. He said he applied to Prototype for Success because he was interested in pharmaceutical industry patenting. Since the workshops have begun, he’s even more motivated. His U. of C. classes are theoretical, while these sessions show him the many career options and pathways within science.

Elizabeth Koprucki, assistant director at Fab Lab and Design, told student participants the program is all about building to learn. She encourages them to make crappy things and learn from them. When it comes to this maker space, it’s all about learning by failing.

University of Chicago first-year students Quadri Durojaiye, from left, Antonio Castano, Max Reisman, Bella Alfaro and Blake Harris present a prototype of a cellphone case that can store things like an identification card. Teams of freshmen who were given an assignment to make something that improves the lives of first-year students presented their final projects at the Harper Center on campus on May 26, 2022. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

University of Chicago freshman Bella Alfaro holds a prototype of a cellphone case that can store things like an identification card as students present their final projects. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

“It’s a great program,” said Osinachi Nwosu, a computer science major. “It really speaks to the fact that you can major in anything you want and after college, you might think there’s only one pathway for your specific major but going through this program, you learn more about how within a major, within a field, you can create anything and that creation is pretty cool.”

Fisher, Qu and Reid are all part of the Class of 2025. Reid wants to make a positive impact doing something he finds really interesting. Fisher is interested in making sure medical devices and tools can fit all kinds of hands. Qu thought having the background knowledge and the skills that Prototype for Success provides will help her be able to make something if an idea were to come to her at some point.

Daw said there are many on campus looking at trends and adjusting career programming accordingly to make sure students are facing a future prepared, including those in her office. Daw said given the university’s institutional knowledge, her team is focused on creating hubs with interdisciplinary approaches. Prototype for Success is the first, but two more early engagement programs will launch this summer — one focused on climate concerns, the other focused on data science and public policy, bringing together the U. of C. UChicago Data Science Institute and the Harris School of Public Policy.

As for how Prototype for Success will measure its success? Daw said in several different ways, including the number of those who remain in the sciences, those who branch out as entrepreneurs and the number of participants who say they are satisfied, supported and connected to each other upon completion.

“They’re gaining transferable skills, building out a network … programs like these are helping them understand what they’re interested in doing and ultimately, they’re becoming more competitive in the marketplace,” Daw said. “It’s really important that all these students have great experiences throughout the academic year and in the summer for career opportunities — all of those things together equal success.”


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