Match sets of real-world challenges with multidisciplinary teams of motivated students and bring them into a space designed for experiential learning. That’s where innovation happens, says Dr. Eric Blaise, director of Applied Research and Innovation at Centennial College.
He is speaking of the Toronto college’s new Innovation Hub, an open and modular 4,500-square-foot space, where power ports are embedded in the floor and desks have wheels. There are boardrooms of different sizes to accommodate meetings for project groups and industry partners, and space configurations are conducive for brainstorming and sharing information, says Dr. Blaise. “The space is designed for collaborative interaction, where people from different programs and with different perspectives work together on developing new concepts.”
It’s no accident that the hub is designed with flexibility and practicality in mind, as these are among the attributes students need to embrace when they tackle challenges presented by industry partners. Current projects, for example, explore the feasibility of operating aircraft landing gear with electrical systems rather than hydraulics, says Dr. Blaise. “We received funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to work with partners in the aerospace industry to develop electrically actuated landing gear.”
Extending and retracting landing gear with electrical systems “requires different technology and different physics” from the traditionally used hydraulics, he explains. Last year, 11 co-op students worked on three projects with Safran Landing Systems, one of Centennial College’s key aerospace partners.
With backgrounds in automation and robotics, electrical systems and mechanical design, the students brought different – and complementary – skill sets. They also saw tremendous gains in “soft skills,” such as communication and presentation skills, and confidence due to frequent interactions with industry partners, believes Dr. Blaise.
Coming up with novel solutions applicable in the real world “is not a linear process,” he says. “There typically are no ready-made solutions that can be picked up from a book or Google. Sometimes, the required technology might not yet exist or not be mature enough.”
The process of first gaining a deep understanding of the problem and then exploring avenues for solving it resembles how students would work in a company, and Dr. Blaise says this makes graduates exposed to such opportunities sought-after future employees.
The Innovation Hub further advances Centennial’s institutional commitment to applied research. With a 10 per cent rise in research income, valued at over $7-million, the college placed seventh in Canada, according to Research Infosource’s annual ranking of Canada’s Top 50 Research Colleges.
In addition to the aerospace sector, future projects will be in health technology and cybersecurity, with the Innovation Hub boasting a prototyping lab with powerful CAD stations and a cybersecurity lab that is isolated to enable testing in a secure environment, says Dr. Blaise.
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