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North Hills Monthly

CCAC Innovation Lab Celebrates One Year of Successful Connections

Dec 31, 2018 07:09PM ● By Hilary Daninhirsch

The CCAC Innovation Lab at CCAC’s North Campus is a place for project-based learning, for collaboration with industry leaders, for exploration of the latest technologies, and for meeting workforce demands. At this one-of-a-kind site, students can explore real-world careers.

“The Innovation Lab was our response to the Allegheny County Conference Inflection Point Report, which showed a disconnect between high-demand careers and the education that students were choosing to pursue,” explained Dr. Gretchen Mullin-Sawicki, president of CCAC North Campus.

CCAC reconfigured an old child development center on campus to create the high tech Innovation Lab, which is very different than any other space on campus. Not only is it brightly hued, prominently featuring greens and purples and oranges, but inside the room, current business leaders and future business trailblazers are solving problems—together.

“That is the crucial connector throughout the lab—connecting industry with our faculty and our students,” said Mullin-Sawicki. “We believe students learn better when applying skills to real-world life projects; project-based learning is the first step toward work-based learning.”

The primary technologies on which the Innovation Lab projects focus are data analytics, multimedia programming, such as gaming and simulation, and cyber security.

The lab contains meeting space as well as a virtual reality lab and an augmented reality lab and, in keeping with the interdisciplinary approach to teaching and learning, it is also set up so that two classes can be held simultaneously. 

Rebecca Elinich is an assistant professor of multimedia communications and oversees the lab. She said that the students are benefiting in multiple ways. “It helps them get experience with projects and to see what the end goal looks like early on in their education; they can see, get experience, and understand what would be a typical project in the workforce, what are the parts and pieces, and what they’d have to design and develop to get the final project ready,” she explained.

Mullin-Sawicki said that there are about 30 local industries that have expressed interest in working with the Innovation Lab, which is membership-based, and is free for businesses to join. Industry leaders hold meetings with students and faculty either in person at the Innovation Lab or via Skype to discuss their workplace needs.

“If you think about it, especially with smaller businesses, they probably don’t have someone on staff that does data analytics or website design or augmented reality, so it’s a way for small companies to get work done for free and to have the ear of the faculty and students,” said Mullin-Sawicki. 

But it goes beyond technology companies: students have worked on projects that directly benefit CCAC, such as working to develop a website for the campus food pantry as well as a project focused on security videos and other safety options on campus. They’ve also worked with educational providers.

One project that was completed this past year was with Economy Borough, which asked the students to come up with marketing ideas for their summer festival. Mullin-Sawicki reported that the Borough chose one student’s design and implemented some of the marketing strategies recommended by that student.

She said that they’ve also worked with a few companies on data analytics; one was a manufacturing company that asked students to look at sales data to help them make decisions on a specific project. They’re also working with Carnegie Mellon University on the Mobility21 Initiative, which is about revolutionizing the technology of transportation.

Now a year old, the Innovation Lab is living up to its name, meeting and even exceeding Mullin-Sawicki’s expectations. “It’s been incredibly successful—it is doing exactly what we wanted it to do: making connections with industry and working on projects with students and faculty.”