Solutions make an impact
April 9, 2013
“A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.” -- Herman Melville
Teresa Bennett has no problem believing what author Herman Melville wrote more than a century ago -- as the director of IUPUI's Solution Center, she lives it every day.
The center, part of the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, is charged with finding the connections that link IUPUI with the Indianapolis community, offering academic opportunities for students, research opportunities for faculty and students, and timely outcomes for the city’s businesses, industries and organizations. And for nearly nine years, Bennett has been at the heart of that process.
She comes well trained. She started at IUPUI in 1990, working for the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, then migrated to the School of Engineering and Technology. She helped SPEA launch the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment -- an endeavor built on community relationships -- and then helped create ConnectTech, an initiative created to link IUPUI high-tech and health sciences researchers to business and community leaders in the city. And she rounded out her resume with a stint at CERIAS (the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security) at Purdue University.
“At SPEA, I learned to work with faculty and the community, finding connections that benefited us both,” Bennett said. “In Engineering, I became more familiar with the perspective of potential industrial partners. And at CERIAS, I learned about the international side of relationships. And all those experiences have been part of my work here at the Solution Center.”
Connect Tech “was a forerunner to the Solution Center,” said Bennett, who also relies on her undergraduate training with a degree in communication and issue management along with the master’s degree she earned from SPEA in policy analysis. “Before ConnectTech, we really didn’t have a way for the community to become aware of and access research and innovations at IUPUI.”
The center gained traction from IUPUI’s growing commitment to civic engagement and community partnerships. “Our work in those areas is making a big difference in our community,” in such diverse fields as health, governance, business and nonprofits, she added.
In its nine-year history, the Solution Center’s primary mission hasn’t changed, Bennett noted. “We use our knowledge of the campus and the community to find ways to bring the two together, and build relationships that benefit everyone.”
Bennett believes her experiences serve her well. “The most important thing I do is listen, so that I can understand what faculty need to achieve their goals, what things the community wants from us to meet its needs, and what students desire to gain experiences that will help them build their careers,” she said.
The center functions in a world of engagements and partnerships. Engagements could involve students, student teams and faculty. The engagements that result from community partnerships lead to transformational experiences for students. Student researchers and interns discover a lot about themselves as they apply their learning and gain real-world experience, and in many cases also test their assumptions about the world around them.
The Solution Center was created in 2004 by a Lilly Endowment grant, which provided financial backing for a new entity: the IUPUI Community Venture Fund, a matching grant program administered by the Solution Center to seed and expand community engagement.
During the first three years of the Lilly Endowment grant, the Venture Fund gave the Solution Center the means to develop numerous relationships with the community and lay the foundation for the center. In 2009, the Solution Center was awarded a sustaining grant from the Lilly Endowment and IUPUI provided matching funds to continue the Venture Fund grant program. Bennett believes the campus now considers the decision to create the center and provide ongoing support for the Venture Fund “a wise investment” that has allowed the Solution Center to establish nearly 3,400 specific engagements, grant more than $2.4 in seed funds and leverage nearly $4 million from community partners for internships, special projects, research experiences, special events and other community activities, and to respond to thousands of inquiries each year.
While the primary mission remains intact, the center’s focus has evolved. “Originally, we were primarily external-facing and entirely focused on traditional internships,” Bennett said. “But our faculty are really savvy and engaged; they saw the potential for the Solution Center to assist them in their work to make a difference in the community and for their students’ careers. Now, faculty come to us with ideas and possibilities, to seek advice in making community connections and for assistance with outreach to help translate their research into practice.”
Bennett believes perception of the Solution Center’s impact came of age in 2006 with the “1,000th Solution” project, initiated by Informatics professor Steve Mannheimer, whose students helped preserve scrapbook memorabilia collected by Indianapolis native and Hoosier basketball legend Oscar Robertson.
The Solution Center collaborated with Robertson’s alma mater, Crispus Attucks High School, and with the Attucks Museum, the city of Indianapolis, the Indiana Historical Society and the Indiana Pacers to preserve the items for the museum, presenting them in a public ceremony. Work by IUPUI and its students, aided by the community partners, allowed the school and the city to make a legendary part of Indianapolis history available to future generations.
“The project took on a life of its own and turned out to be a much larger, more important project than it started out,” she recalled. “It involved a number of IUPUI students and faculty, and brought a lot of people together; it showed everyone, including our campus community, what IUPUI can do when we work closely together. When we do that, we’re capable of amazing things!”
The Solution Center’s success stories have made Bennett a popular resource for other colleges and universities, hoping to emulate the impact IUPUI has had on its hometown.
“People are interested in how we do what we do,” she said. “And what is driving that interest is a growing trend toward incorporating community ties into the life of universities. For us, it’s part of IUPUI’s DNA. Our students benefit from unique opportunities. Our faculty benefit from a chance to translate their research into ideas that help people. And our community benefits from having a campus that wants to be a good partner and serve its community. I believe it’s what distinguishes IUPUI from other campuses and universities in Indiana.”