Skip to main content area Skip to sub-navigation
Skip to main content

Building on the Block: CC’s Innovation Initiative

We proposed an innovation program that would provide resources, structure, and encouragement to students and faculty as they investigate today’s opportunities and challenges, understand their contexts, and go on to identify sustainable solutions. A natural extension of the liberal arts, this program would offer students and faculty a place to focus on accessing creativity with our own innovative spirit and commitment to making a difference in the world.

What’s Happening: With this broad goal in mind, Dez Menendez ’02, director of Innovation at CC, has developed a strategic philosophy to guide CC’s innovation initiative.

“We’re poised to realize some opportunities that other institutions don’t have because of our sense of place and the Block Plan. We already have an innovative approach to the liberal arts. We already draw naturally innovative, risk-taking students who choose this alternative structure for their education. Our question is, ‘How can we do what we already do better and what are the unique opportunities we have because of the Block Plan?’ ” says Menendez. See the vision statement for Innovation at CC

Innovation at CC empowers students with the creative confidence to contribute actively to change-making in the world. Because many institutions are using the word “innovative” lately, CC’s program is articulating the learning outcomes that distinguish what we mean by the term. Identified learning outcomes for Innovation at CC include empowering our students with creative confidence; a sense of resilience; mindfulness; and reflective self-awareness. We also strive to help them build comfort with navigating ambiguity and iterative risk-taking; teaching them creative problem-solving methodologies; as well as design thinking skills; and something Menendez calls “courageous doing.”

“In order to innovate, you have to step into the unknown. In order to step into the unknown, you have to be able to risk failure. In able to risk failure, you have to be willing to ask for forgiveness and accept mistakes as part of the process. In order to have a community around innovation, we have to embrace and reward risk-taking without too much focus on process or successful outcomes,” says Menendez.

Developing that willingness to embrace risk is one of the outcomes Menendez is helping students develop through a new program, the Risk Project. The Risk Project is a 3-5-day retreat offered during block breaks, or as part of a course, where students join faculty and staff members to reflect on how risk-taking is intertwined with a sense of identity, self-reflection, and "success" in its many definitions. The project distinguishes between mitigated risk and thoughtful risk, emphasizing mindfulness and other self-reflective practices that help students tap into their creativity.

“You have to feel like there’s no such thing as failure,” says Bridget Galaty ’21, who participated in the first-ever Risk Project program during Block 2 of the 2017-18 academic year. “You have to redefine what failure is and say that instead of, ‘Oh no, if I can’t climb this rock wall’ or ‘If I don’t find the perfect solution to this problem, that’s failure.’ Instead, defining failure as not having tried at all. Then risk taking takes on a new light.”

Menendez says Innovation at CC also differentiates itself from the current approach to "innovation" by bringing a stronger focus to the dimension of creativity, the precursor to innovation. In general, creativity refers to the ability to generate ideas, while innovation refers to the execution of those novel ideas. Without creativity, there is no innovation, yet many institutions that promote innovation and entrepreneurship give little conscious attention to the conditions that cultivate creativity.

“All humans are endowed with creativity, and although many of us have experiences early in our lives that cut us off from our creative sources, they never disappear,” Menendez says. “With guidance, students can not only recover access to their creativity but learn how to sustain it over a lifetime.”

The essence of creativity is the ability to generate many possibilities, including novel ones. Creative thinkers have access to new solutions to existing problems. With exposure to research about how creativity works, practice in creative-problem solving methodologies, and self-knowledge about their creative processes, students are well positioned to approach any challenge with flexibility, openness, and confidence, according to Menendez.

First-year students, like Galaty, practiced vulnerability, accessed their creativity, developed plans for risk-taking, and then acted on their plans during a week spent at CC’s Baca Campus in the San Luis Valley. As part of their final assignment for the Creativity and Logic First-Year Experience class with Professors Ryan Bañagale and Dan Johnson, students spent the five days without cell phones to promote other modes of investigation within oneself and between each other. For the inaugural project, the two professors, part of the Innovation at CC Advisory Board, and Menendez collaborated with Creative Writing faculty, the Wellness Resource Center, Outdoor Education, Music faculty, Economics and Business faculty, and the Office of Field Study to create a curriculum for the week. The retreat aims to model vulnerability as a strength for everybody involved; it was an opportunity for students to challenge themselves, while also having time to reflect, relax, and freely create.

“You see that everything’s not separated. Everything’s connected to each other. Even if music and economics seem vastly different, there’s a lot alike,” says Leonardo Hernandez Flores ’21, who was also part of the Creativity and Logic FYE. “The course empowered us as students, because we may have had the most wild idea, and the professors would say, ‘OK, I’ll help you, I’ll support you in making this or doing this.’”

Part of the college’s strategic plan for innovation is to create spaces where this work can happen as well as spaces where work merges with play. Beyond the FYE, Student Design Assistants Landis Hackett ’19 and Sophie Leamon ’18 have worked with Menendez to create the first iteration of a center for innovation in the program’s new home on Weber Street. Recent graduate Suzie McMurtry ’17, the program’s paraprofessional, also helped design the current space, an open, airy and light-filled series of workshops, outfitted with wipe boards and work tables produced by the young staff, and technology that helped them construct the equipment.

Innovation at CC wants to encourage and create opportunities for:

  • Human-centered/empathic problem-solving
  • Collaboration across diverse constituencies
  • Self-directed learning
  • Project-based learning
  • Defining values and passions
  • Community engagement and collaboration
  • Experimentation without pre-defined goals or outcomes

Our innovation program will provide resources and encouragement to students and faculty and staff as they investigate social and environmental challenges, identify sustainable solutions, and put them into action. By offering students and faculty a place to focus on accessing their creativity, this program will bring together the skills of the liberal arts — collaboration, critical thinking, and communication — with our adventurous spirit and commitment to making a difference in the world. While we currently have programs that help students take critical steps in the innovation process, we will connect them further and, as the program evolves, faculty leaders and students will continue to shape and extend its scope.

Our goal is to raise $40 million for innovation, as part of the Building on Originality Campaign. To date $14.64 million has been raised for all innovations programs.