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The Renaissance Foundry: An Effective Strategy to Drive Innovation in Academic Organizations

Arguably, innovation is one of the most effective ways to foster student success within an academic organization (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson, 2008). However, an actual protocol that advances innovation has not been systematically addressed within the extant literature. In this contribution, a protocol fulfilling this purpose termed the Renaissance Foundry is introduced and its application illustrated in one key example. The foundry is a protocol or “engine” that academic organizations can use to assist in their search for innovations. This protocol is based on five key elements: Organizational Challenge for Innovation, Resources, Learning Cycles, Linear Engineering Sequence, and a Prototype of Innovative Technology. Figure 1 displays the key elements of the Renaissance Foundry and how they interact. This interaction will be described in detail.

The Renaissance Foundry is inspired by three guiding concepts: Vision, Leadership, and Innovation. A novel aspect used to develop the Renaissance Foundry is the relationship among these three concepts which is governed by the following principle:

Vision + Leadership ---> Innovation

The relation among the variables in this equation implies that in order to bring Innovation to an academic institution, the Leadership needs to work together with a proper Vision for the institution and for that particular Innovation.

At the Tennessee Technological University (TTU) Department of Chemical Engineering, although leadership provides the strategy for implementation, Vision is the guiding principle for advancing innovation even during the most difficult challenges.

In summary, innovation without vision will not yield the desired results nor will it produce technologies that are effective in bringing new opportunities for student success (Christensen, 2013). Technology here implies a number of outcomes relevant for the academic unit including, for example, new pedagogical approaches, classroom upgrades, new programs for students, etc. Moreover, without the proper leadership, the vision itself cannot achieve the most effective technologies for the institution’s modernization. The net impact of these principles is enhanced student success.

The Renaissance Foundry is an important departure from the traditional committees that academic institutions use to handle matters related to innovation because it relies on expert adaptable procedures (Lin, Schwartz, & Bransford, 2007) coupled with team members who are highly knowledgeable about the vision behind a given innovation.

The Renaissance Foundry: Key Elements of the Protocol and its Philosophy

The Renaissance Foundry is a powerful and systematic protocol that is very helpful in promoting innovations in any given academic unit. The five elements mentioned above work synergistically within two educational paradigms (Arce, 2014; Arce & Schreiber, 2004): The Knowledge Acquisition (A) and the Knowledge Transfer (B) paradigms (Figure 1). Under the umbrella of the Organizational Challenge for Innovation (1), both paradigms utilize different elements of the Renaissance Foundry to produce a suitable Prototype of Innovative Technology (5), to solve the initial organizational challenge (1).

An effective application of this protocol would therefore start with the identification of the Organizational Challenge for Innovation (1). Once this is identified, the next step is to move into the Knowledge Acquisition paradigm (A) to acquire an accurate knowledge base regarding the challenge and all other relevant aspects related to the challenge. Specifically, the Knowledge Acquisition paradigm is driven by “Cycles of Learning” coupled with “Documentation Cycles” that can effectively gather and assess data (Donovan, Bransford, & Pellegrino, 2000). A part of this paradigm includes a thorough analysis of similar cases found in the literature that are related to the challenge. In particular, this analysis should identify what innovative prototypes were achieved, what student population was impacted, and what role the student played during the process of innovation.

Once the level of knowledge reached is enough to obtain an accurate description of the challenge, the focus changes to the Knowledge Transfer paradigm (B). This paradigm is centered on a “Linear Engineering Sequence” (LES) of steps with the last one being the Prototype of Innovative Technology (5). Figure 2 lists the key steps involved in LES while Figure 3 is a pictorial representation of the procedure used to move from an Institutional Challenge toward the Prototype of Innovative Technology. Specifically, these figures illustrate the application of LES to one example of innovation, the Mobile Learning Environment System Infrastructure (MoLE-SI) that is discussed in detail below. In this paradigm, the unit personnel involved in identifying the innovation effectively move ideas toward the identification of a suitable Prototype of Innovative Technology (5) using the LES.

Finally, the Resources (2) element plays an important role in connecting the two paradigms and their respective elements. In relationship to the challenge, resources may include subject experts, learning facilitators, or staff and faculty personnel. Consultation with them could identify useful information needed to resolve a challenge that might otherwise be overlooked.

The synergetic dynamic between the elements which are fueled by these paradigms is a key innovative aspect introduced by the Renaissance Foundry. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs, the idea of the Knowledge Acquisition paradigm (A) can be related to the identification of the “dots” of the challenge while the Knowledge Transfer paradigm (B) is directly relevant to “connecting dots” to produce an innovation (Jobs, 2005). While many academic organizations just use traditional committees to generate suggestions and solutions, Jobs indicated that an innovation is rarely produced by a group of people mandated with a task (Jobs, 1998). This task requires, instead, a protocol guided by a principle (i.e., the vision) and an effective strategy (i.e., leadership) to achieve it. As Jobs famously explained even before introducing the iPhone, “Many people do not know what they want until they are shown” (Jobs, 1998).

Based on Jobs’ principle of innovation, it is clear that in order to find a suitable innovation for a challenge, the team members involved will need a commanding knowledge of the vision coupled with the proper leadership. These people do not work alone, either; they form an effective collaboration to work in a “Group-Genius” mode to maximize creativity (Sawyer, 2008). These wonderful groups of colleagues, that may be called “dream teams,” display a high level of synergy in working effectively toward identifying the prototype of innovative technology. If a leader of an academic unit is interested in promoting innovation, she or he must develop a proper dream team and not just select people to form a committee for the task.

Applications of the Foundry Example: MoLE-SI

One useful example of an application of the Renaissance Foundry is the case of the Mobile Learning Environment System Infrastructure (MoLE-SI) that is now very successful within the TTU Department of Chemical Engineering (Arce & Pazos-Revilla, 2009). MoLE-SI was the Prototype of Innovative Technology identified to replace the old and anti-pedagogical fixed computer laboratories.

In 2009, the faculty and staff of the TTU Department of Chemical Engineering identified a challenge regarding the modernization of the fixed computer laboratories used to deliver computational instruction to students in the department. This challenge was the result of aging computers, the desire of the faculty to use more collaborative approaches to learn software applications, and the lack of space in classrooms. This was a great challenge for the Chemical Engineering Department since never before in the curriculum was there anything related to using a computational mobile platform. As anticipated by Jobs’ innovative principle, the challenge was identified after a college-wide engineering committee determined that there was no need to change anything. A traditional committee therefore failed to produce a very necessary innovation that would directly impact student success.

Recognizing the different technical and educational aspects needed to solve the challenge, a dream team formed with members from Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Computer Sciences, Business, and the TTU Institute of Technology. By applying the Knowledge Acquisition paradigm (A, Figure 1) this dream team was able to learn about important aspects of the challenge. Resources at this point included consultations with Apple, Lenovo, and Microsoft professionals. Then the team moved to the Knowledge Transfer paradigm (B, Figure 1) and by applying LES determined quickly that mobile devices that students used every day could be an important factor in solving the challenge. Therefore, wireless internet access and connections were also important aspects to consider.

Since most engineering applications demand far more computational power than a smart phone or a tablet may have, “back-end” clusters of computers with remote connectivity became an additional factor to include. The last piece needed to solve the challenge was the effective use of the space and, after learning about the options available (Resources (2), Figure 1), meeting-style classrooms were determined the most suitable arrangement to implement the innovation (Scoot-Weber, Strickland, & Kapitula, 2013). Conceptually, the challenge was addressed and the MoLE-SI prototype identified. At this point, what was left to implement was the computer software to readily connect the elements of the prototype (the mobile devices with back-end clusters of computers), as well as the building of MoLE-SI-style classrooms.

The MoLE-SI dream team was quite surprised that, commercially, there was no software or platform that could accomplish the connection mentioned above. Therefore, the idea of pilots was brought to the table. The team’s suggestion was to start with a single course to test a few possible connecting platforms and also allow for the testing of wireless connectivity within the department classrooms. If the pilot was successful, then a few additional courses would be added and if these were also successful, then an up-scaling to other TTU College of Engineering courses would follow. Moreover, based on the success of these incremental efforts, scaling up to the entire university was an anticipated possibility (Sutton & Rao, 2014).

The application of the Renaissance Foundry was instrumental in resolving the initial Organizational Challenge for Innovation in the TTU Department of Chemical Engineering and led to the identification of MoLE-SI as the Prototype of Innovative Technology. In fact, MoLE-SI has become the leading candidate for adoption as the mobility learning platform of choice within TTU.

Concluding Remarks

The Renaissance Foundry provides effective protocols and strategies to drive innovation in any academic organization to offer better opportunities for their students’ success. By synergistically utilizing the five key elements of the Renaissance Foundry through the Knowledge Acquisition and Knowledge Transfer paradigms, an effective Prototype of Innovative Technology can be successfully identified to address an Organizational Challenge for Innovation. Furthermore, this protocol clearly connects the three crucial concepts, innovation, leadership, and vision, that are essential to move initiatives forward.

The dynamism and complexity involved in implementing the Renaissance Foundry represents a change of culture in the movement away from the antiquated and inefficient use of traditional committees. It is important to note that two pivotal differences between the Renaissance Foundry and the use of traditional committees stem from the development of dream teams and the implementation of pilots, as mentioned in the MoLE-SI example. Regarding the first difference, the members of these dream teams are carefully selected and composed of skillful individuals who are strongly knowledgeable about the vision that will lead them to an innovation. However, unlike most committees, these dream teams are supported by a leadership that avoids micromanagement and sets the team free to manage the process of implementing the vision, which should be the only guiding principle for the innovation. Regarding the second aspect, the use of pilots effectively addresses the potential hindrance in identifying a Prototype of Innovative Technology due to a lack of financial and other resources.

Although this article only illustrates one example of the application of the Renaissance Foundry, this protocol can be used in the resolution of a variety of organizational challenges. Ultimately, innovation is not a destination. For academic institutions at the frontier of student success, innovation is an everyday journey.

Acknowledgements: Dr. Arce is privileged to acknowledge the many discussions and interactions with his dream team (Dr. J. R. Sanders, Dr. M. Geist, Doctoral Students Lacy Loggings and Andrea Arce-Trigatti) and colleagues Marbin Pazos-Revilla, Dr. J. Pascal, Dr. J. Biernacki, and Dr. K. Wiant. Doctoral student Andrea Arce-Trigatti reviewed several versions of the draft and offered excellent suggestions for improvement. Figures 2 and 3 are adaptations of others originally proposed by Dr. J. R. Sanders. Figure 1 is inspired by the High Performance Learning Environment (Hi-PeLE) concept (Arce & Schriber, 2004) but is the sole conception of the author. The contribution is based on a roundtable offered by the author at the annual meeting of the Chair Academy in St. Louis, MO, in March of 2014. The excellent guidance received from the Associate Director of the Chair Academy, Ms. Rose Marie Ferretti, has been very helpful. Review comments and suggestions from editorial board members (A. Seagren, and B. Lamb) were useful. Finally, it has been a pleasure to work with Dr. C. Songer, member of the Leadership Editorial Board, in the final version of the article.


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Sawyer, K. (2008). Group genius: The creative power of collaboration. New York, NY: Basic Books.

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Pedro E. Arce, PhD, is a University Distinguished Faculty Fellow, Professor and Chair of the TTU Department of Chemical Engineering, Cookeville, TN. A multiple award winner in areas of active and collaborative learning approaches, transformational leadership and service, and topics related his research, he has proposed numerous innovation-driven learning methodologies to enhance student, staff, and faculty success. As an active member of the Chair Academy, he has delivered workshops and round tables at the annual meetings of the Academy related to these topics. He is a holder of a Diploma in Chemical Engineering (Universidad Nacional del Litoral, Santa Fe, Argentina); MS and PhD in Chemical Engineering (Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN-USA) and three certifications on English Studies and Academic Leadership. He can be reached at

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