Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators: Developing a Unique Skillset in a Nontraditional Setting

3/1/20 DukEngineer Magazine

DISI brings together small groups of graduate students who are interested in creating new solutions for pressing social issues

A group of students standing in front of a research poster
Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators: Developing a Unique Skillset in a Nontraditional Setting

I kickoff event n school, students spend most of their time working on homework assignments and projects, which, despite their importance in reinforcing skills learned in class, usually have no immediate benefit to the world. In order to truly have an impact on the world outside of the classroom, students must search for other opportunities to work on engaging and meaningful projects. Enter DISI.

Duke Interdisciplinary Social Innovators (DISI) brings together small groups of graduate students who are interested in creating new solutions for pressing social issues. Each project lasts one semester, during which the students perform services for various community organizations, such as evaluating the impact of certain parameters on profit, implementing new tools and technologies, developing strategic financial plans, and more.

With typically six to ten projects per semester, DISI partnered with organizations in the fall of 2019, including Child Care Services, Book Harvest, Safe Haven for Cats and Benevolence Farm. The projects ranged from database management and data surveys to impact assessment and market research. At the conclusion of each semester, students share their projects at a showcase event, and everything starts again the next semester with a new kick-off event.

A large group of students standing outside for a photoStudents fill various roles within DISI and collaborate to brainstorm ideas and turn them into reality. Project Innovators (PI) commit a few hours a week to support the analysis and implementation of the projects. Innovators bring in their own technical expertise and work with each other to complete tasks. Students come from engineering backgrounds at Pratt, public policy backgrounds at Sanford, or even medical and law backgrounds. The variety of skills and experiences allows the teams to develop complex solutions for these challenges. All innovators also attend skill sessions, where they learn about topics from survey building to project management. Students can choose to become an innovator for a single semester or for as many as they would like.

Project Innovators provide the predetermined deliverables in a timely fashion by working with their Project Managers (PMs). These students coordinate the activities of five innovators while reporting to the director of operations on the executive board. Managers also work directly with the industry and community partners, requiring slightly more of a time commitment in comparison to the innovators. In addition to the normal skill sessions, students in the management level attend seminars to improve leadership skills. These managers provide the necessary bridge between the innovators, the executive board and the community partners, facilitating the success of each project.

In addition to filling these roles on project teams, students can also apply to be part of the executive board. Over 10 positions are chosen each semester, including co-presidents, marketing, strategy and operations. The executive board oversees each project during the semester, plans the kick-off and showcase events, and hosts skills seminars and training sessions, among other responsibilities. Students often work their way up the chain of command into executive board positions through continued participation, but there is no structured prerequisite to be able to apply for these positions.

Two students giving a presentation in front of a projector screen

Due to the various positions within DISI, effective collaboration and successful interdependence are critical to the mission of each project. Throughout the semester, the teams visit their clients to discuss the progress of their projects. Sometimes, they also complete team-building exercises such as “Escape the Room.”

I wanted to learn about DISI from firsthand experience, so I met and interviewed its two co-presidents, Charlotte Moore and Nick Williams.

Here is a snapshot of our discussion:

What brought you to DISI?

Charlotte came to DISI due to her desire for community outreach. Nick, on the other hand, was interested in opportunities to develop skills outside of the laboratory. Graduate students spend large amounts of time conducting research, studying textbooks and completing homework assignments, he explained. DISI offers an opportunity to complete unique and technical projects with community partners, while improving soft skills and management techniques in the process. With the semester-long project limit, students can choose which semesters they participate in DISI, providing a flexibility that is appealing to graduate students.

Why did you choose to pursue an executive board member position within DISI?

Charlotte and Nick both agreed that serving as executive board members has provided them with a greater appreciation for the teams’ impacts on the community. While innovators can focus on the details of a particular task for a specific project, the executive board members get the chance to help put the pieces together to form the big picture.

What would you like others to know about DISI?

Charlotte mentioned that alumni from DISI go on to earn consulting jobs at companies as big as McKinsey and Triangle Insights Group. Their time in DISI provided plenty of skills and experiences to talk about during these job interviews. Nick added that there is a position for everyone in DISI. Depending on what you are looking to get out of the experience, there is plenty of room for growth and development, whether you participate in one semester or six.

Richard Hollenbach is a second-year PhD student in mechanical engineering pursuing a certificate in aerospace engineering and college teaching.