In February 2014, the college will celebrate 20 years of the Schoofs Prize for Creativity, the oldest running innovation prize on the UW-Madison campus. Since its inception, the contest has yielded several spin-off companies and hundreds of creative ideas, and participants often cite their Schoofs Prize experiences as a major factor in their professional success.
Here, we talk with Schoofs Prize founder and sponsor Richard Schoofs (BSChE ‘53) about the need for and value of extracurricular opportunities that allow students to exercise their creativity.
How did the idea of a student innovation competition originate?
Approximately 24 years ago I was invited to become a member of the College of Engineering dean’s advisory board (at that time, named the Industrial Liaison Council, or ILC). As the name suggested, the ILC was made up primarily of representatives of large, blue-chip corporations including General Motors, Ford, Proctor & Gamble, IBM, Kimberly-Clark, Coca-Cola, Emerson Electric, Kohler, Johnson Controls, Cargill, etc.
Quite understandably, it appeared to me that the principal aim of this group was to prepare, guide and influence engineering students toward employment at their respective companies. As the token entrepreneur, I became increasingly aware that relatively little attention was directed toward creativity and entrepreneurship. For example, when I gave a guest lecture to a large group of College of Engineering students, I was amazed to learn that significantly less than 20 percent of the students had ever seen or read a patent. It was also obvious that employment at a major corporation or public entity seemed to be the only career opportunity most of the students were considering.
As a result of these observations, I directed my attention during six years on the ILC toward endeavors that could initiate or refocus various activities within the COE. It was in this environment that I proposed a creativity/entrepreneurship prize. Fortunately, then-Dean John Bollinger had become keenly interested in creativity and entrepreneurship. Therein began the experiment known as the Schoofs Prize for Creativity.
What is the value of participating in such a competition?
The Schoofs Prize provides a platform that guides the participants to recognize and appreciate three specific skill sets: creativity, communication and leadership. The winners generally display evidence of all three. Creativity is obvious, based upon the presentation of an original idea. Communication skills are required to prepare the written description and to give the verbal presentation. Leadership is displayed by organizing and following through from idea to final presentation. It is my opinion that a successful career requires proficiency in at least one of these skills; and truly successful people tend to be proficient in at least two of them.
You’ve attended many Schoofs Prize and Innovation Days competitions over the years. What do you enjoy most about these events, and why?
Certainly, the most enjoyable aspect of the Innovation Days competitions is observing the enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment of the participants; this in spite of the fact that they all admit that the competition required much more effort and work than any course they had taken. I continue to be truly amazed at how many have told me that participation in the Innovation Days competition was, unquestionably, the best learning experience that they have experienced at UW-Madison.
Why are such opportunities for students as the Innovation Days competitions important for the university as a whole?
The purpose and function of the university should not be directed merely toward developing and imparting knowledge. In my opinion, particularly as it applies toward undergraduates, there should be much greater emphasis on developing creative minds and passions. The
Innovation Days competitions constitute a major step in that direction. As stated on the descriptive web page, “The Schoofs Prize provides a platform whereby undergraduate students are encouraged to explore/conduct self-directed research, outside the classroom environment. Students are encouraged to exploit, on their own and with complete freedom, the array of talent and resources that are so readily available to them. The intent is to awaken students to the potential embedded in their own talent, and thereby encourage creativity and entrepreneurship.” Creativity should be given significant priority in more activities at UW-Madison.
What is your vision for the future of Innovation Days and other innovation/entrepreneurship competitions at UW-Madison?
There should be more and stronger emphases, not just within UW-Madison but across the entire state university system, on the successful ventures and careers, and the added jobs and wealth to the state of Wisconsin that result from these activities. Twenty years ago there was just one creativity competition; now there are six or seven. Numerous successful ventures have resulted. There remains a huge, untapped potential for future successes and growth.