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An Interview with Shawn Nason, Xavier University

One of the latest trends we have seen in 3D printing is the introduction of 3D printing spaces on college campuses. More specifically, more and more campuses interested in 3D printing have opted for the building/installation of MakerBot Innovation Centers, a customizable 3D printing space. One of these locations that opened recently is at Xavier University, located in Cincinnati, OH. To learn more about their decision and what having one means to their campus we reached out and were granted an interview with Shawn Nason, Chief Innovation Officer, Xavier University and Xavier Center for Innovation. The interview was conducted via email, and the transcript is here below.

1) What prompted you to look into becoming a MakerBot 3D Innovation Center? Had anyone among the staff and faculty had experience with other 3D printers or 3D design?
It was a group effort! While I, and several members of our team, were at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas scoping out the newest and latest technologies to bring back to our students on campus, we came across MakerBot. We were so impressed with what the machines and software could do, not to mention how important 3D printing is to the prototyping process required in innovation, that we had to act—and act quickly.

Prof. Gary Lewandowski who teaches Human-Center making is our resident expert in 3D printing. David Zlatic, who worked in the theater department, just joined us and is trained in 3D design and he will be running our 3D print shop once it opens officially in July. In addition, we have several other staff members who are trained in using the 3D printers and software. Our hope is to hire students, teach them how to use the software and machines and have them help us run the space.

2)What types of reactions have you had across campus since the Innovation Center got up and running?
In order to answer this honestly, I will have to say, in all seriousness, we’ve met some resistance. I think academics, by their nature are inquisitive, smart, skeptical, and cautious. Needless to say, it is fair to conclude that many within the university have been a bit skeptical. I am not going to lie and say and that it has all been easy. Of course, as a university, we’re constantly facing budget restrictions and belt-tightening in order to pass the savings and prevent tuition increases to our students. So, starting up an innovation center might seem to some as a bit of an extravagance.

The reality is though if you’re not creating and innovating, you’re stagnating and not growing. And we all know that the next thing that follows is cutting and collapsing. I know we have a lot to prove in a short amount of time—and I think we’re well on way to doing just that. I will add that that outside the walls of the university—start-ups, major companies, alumni, donors, prospective students and parents are all raving about what we’re doing.

I get contacted on a daily basis from companies and individuals from all over the U.S. who want to do business with us. I have start-ups looking to partner with us. Major corporations are contacting me looking to partner with Xavier. We also host alumni, parents and prospective students regularly who walk through our space and talk to me, as well as all the members of our team, and they absolutely LOVE what we’re doing and want to be part of it in some way.

3) What has been done to promote its existence and technology? Have you begun any cross-campus partnerships since its inception both on campus or out in the community?
We have a strategic communication plan in place. We publish press releases every time a partnership is announced. We’ve been featured now in countless local and national media—magazines, website, blogs, radio and television. We announce all of of training, challenges, and events via the Xavier newsletter, hub, as well as on various social media platforms—Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Cerkl, and my own blog, manonfireinnovation.com. We host a number programs and events at the CFI—we’ve had an Open House and had over 450 people from within and without the XU community, several training programs, as well as number of departmental meetings. We’re hosting a Design Challenge, open to anyone in the Xavier Community and city here in May. We also have had many major events that have garnered press’the opening of the MakerBot Innovation center made the national news. We also made local news when students in the Human-Centered making program began making a prosthetic for a service dog born with only 3 legs.

4) Who all is able to take advantage of having this type of resource on campus? Is it limited to students taking courses in specific academic disciplines?
The Center for Innovation is open to all students. Once the 3D printer shop is open full-time beginning in July any student, faculty, or staff member can submit print jobs—large and small—to the 3D printers for a reasonable price. Additionally, students can take any of the for-credit classes offered through the school of Arts and Innovation. We also offer non-credit half-day, full-day and four day innovation programs that are open to anyone in and out of the Xavier Community for a reasonable fee as well.

5) What impact do you think it has had on the education of your students? Does it give your students a competitive edge over those from other schools?
I think it absolutely gives our students a competitive edge. I have been saying from the beginning of launching the Center for Innovation—we are here for one reason: The students. We’re here to prepare students for jobs that don’t exist yet. We’re here for students whose future is uncertain. Innovation training prepares students like no other program, because it teaches, above all, problem solving. Problem-solving skills are transferable across a broad spectrum of fields. If you can teach a student how to solve a problem and find meaningfully unique solution—you can pretty much guarantee that he or she will be able to succeed in any field they choose.

We are teaching students to look for answers, and we’re giving them a variety of tools to do that, all within the context of a traditional liberal arts education as well. Also, by being a “center” and not an academic department, we have the freedom to partner with start-ups and companies. We can give students unprecedented access to internships with companies that are on the vanguard of disrupting industries. We also are giving local start-ups and companies the ability to work with students and to get perspective from an entirely new generation of thinkers. By working so closely with the community, we’re able to give our students a more well-rounded and practical education.

6) In as much as you can comment, how integral was the administration of the university in getting this done and getting it funded? Was any of this the result of a grant application?
We are currently operating under the assistance of administration. The first release of funds were allocated by the administration, but it is understood that we are a start-up, and will be self-funded. The purpose of the Center of Innovation is to ultimately relieve the students of tuition increases. Using the tools of innovation, we have been challenged with the problem: How might we create revenue for the university without raising the cost of tuition? That’s my job—to figure out how to do that. We’re working on that. And I hope in a couple of years I can give you a detailed answer about just how we were able to raise money and funding for the center—and the university—without the students paying for it!

7) Have the first few months met your expectations thus far? What have been the biggest challenges presented and how have they been overcome or handled? What have been the biggest surprises, if any?
We have exceeded expectations. In 9 months since I’ve been hired we’ve moved into and renovated an old building, where we are now housing the Center. We’ve formed several key partnerships with local start-ups, started a full open enrollment innovation training program, opened the INTEL-GE Care Innovations testing center at the CFI, the MakerBot 3D printing center, formed relationships with many local accelerators, and have had several programs, classes and Design Challenges hosted in our Center—and we’re doing it with a lean and mean staff of 4.

8) What advice, if any, would you give to another CIO/CTO, professor, or business who is interested in beginning an Innovation Center on their campus or a place of business?
Call me. We have much to discuss.

9) What are some of the long-term goals of Xavier as it relates to both 3D printing and education in general?
Our goal is simple: To be the leading private university in the innovation space. We want to be known as the school that companies who are hiring can count to deliver deep thinkers and problem-solvers, who are, above all, competent and prepared. We believe the future is full of possibilities and exciting emerging technologies, and I know our students at Xavier are going to be the ones who are going to be making that future possible.

10) What materials/filament are you printing with, and what are some examples of the products you have printed that you are most proud of to this point?
We are currently printing with PLA but in the very near future will be able to print in limestone iron and wood. We have printed a wide array of items across multiple fields and industries in the short time we have been up and running. A few of the more interesting items have been:

  • A prosthetic limb for a service dog through our human centered making class
  • A scale model of a scenic design for our theatre program
  • Digitally designed replacement parts for machines that parts for purchase have become obsolete
  • 3D reproductions of museum artifacts for display in museum exhibits
  • Prototypes for startup companies looking to bring products to market