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innovator profile

Hossein Rahnama, Director Ryerson's Digital Media Zone photographed at his offices on Dundas St., Toronto September 27, 2012.Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

In a corner of Ryerson University's sprawling campus, Hossein Rahnama is giving his class a career leg up.

His students play an integral part in the Digital Media Zone, an innovation hub set up a couple of years ago that helps students incubate their businesses by providing education and resources, accelerating product launches and conducting research – all the while earning their university degrees. It is a unique, unsupervised learning model that Dr. Rahnama believes takes the best parts of the university lecture and applies it in a creative way so that students are making headway in their careers before graduating.

"I think the typical classroom does work. [But] I think we need to have complementary and supportive infrastructure around that to address the needs of the new generation, the generation Y," said Dr. Rahnama, DMZ's director and an assistant professor in communication and design. "They want to think differently, they innovative differently and they want to learn differently."

One of the more than 90 projects initiated at the DMZ was the successful GO Mobile application. A group of undergraduate and Masters students created a product that is now used by more than 200,000 people in the Greater Toronto Area to find GO Transit schedules on their BlackBerry, iPhone and Android devices. Another group is currently doing work for Ontario's Ministry of Transportation.

On a typical day at the DMZ, which overlooks the bustling Toronto intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets, students from all majors, from fashion to computer engineering, collaborate on projects. Some apply to the DMZ to incubate their companies, some do coursework that brings them into the lab, and others enroll to bolster their digital media literacy and earn a specialization on their transcripts. It is difficult for an outsider to differentiate between a professor, an undergrad or a graduate student.

"They are all here working on ideas that they think are going to change the world for the better," Dr. Rahnama said.

The result? "By involving students from the early days of undergrad in industry and research projects, their career will be advanced by two to four years when they graduate. We have seen almost nine examples so far," he added. "They do not stretch their study period; they just get involved in projects with real timelines and expectations."