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iDesign Studio: Gateway to Innovation and Entrepreneurship via Incubation Curriculum

The iDesign Studio course was developed to attract students that do not perceive themselves as “techies” or “entrepreneurs.” The hands-on curriculum and incubator approach encourage students to step outside their comfort zone and discover unexpected pathways.

Published onSep 14, 2022
iDesign Studio: Gateway to Innovation and Entrepreneurship via Incubation Curriculum

iDesign Studio: Gateway to Innovation and Entrepreneurship via Incubation Curriculum

Audrey St. John1, Shani Mensing2, Becky Wai-Ling Packard3, Peter Klemperer4 and Sarah Byrne5

1Audrey St. John; Dept. of Computer Science, Mount Holyoke College; e-mail: [email protected]

2Shani Mensing; Fimbel Maker & Innovation Lab, Mount Holyoke College; e-mail: [email protected]

3Becky Wai-Ling Packard; Dept. of Psychology and Education, Mount Holyoke College; e-mail: [email protected]

4Peter Klemperer; Manning College of Information & Computer Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst; e-mail: [email protected]

5Sarah Byrne; Manning College of Information & Computer Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst; e-mail: [email protected]

Abstract. The iDesign Studio course was developed to attract students that do not perceive themselves as “techies” or “entrepreneurs.” The curriculum aims to demystify technology while providing scaffolding for students to pitch, design and prototype creative projects, such as a motion-dependent twinkling ballet skirt and a split-brain neurological simulator. The course provides an unexpected gateway to the campus makerspace, supported by peer mentors and a climate that encourages students to try, fail, recover and persist. We present the curriculum, which introduces making with electronics and microcontrollers through an incubator experience, and report evidence of increased self-efficacy in technical and entrepreneurship-related domains.

1. Introduction

The iDesign Studio curriculum creates an incubator experience through hands-on activities and a supportive climate, enabling students to step outside their comfort zone and discover unexpected pathways. The course is infused with the entrepreneurial spirit, highlighting a need for students to develop a propensity for risk-taking [1]. We follow the work within entrepreneurship education [2] and makerspace education [3], as well as constructionism more generally [4][5], by suggesting that risk-taking can be cultivated when students explore, play with and test ideas in a makerspace; supportive scaffolding leads to incremental risks as confidence is developed.

Weekly modules during the first half demystify technology by introducing the basics of electronics and microcontrollers, each with a laboratory exercise designed to kick off an accompanying assignment that inspires innovation. The remainder of the semester is spent pitching and developing original technical projects; entrepreneurial lessons that were implicit in the modules become explicit through elevator pitches and a timeline with deliverable milestones. A strong support structure with studio time, near-peer mentors and a shared space that facilitates camaraderie is influenced by the social cognitive theory that emphasizes the role of feedback in the development of self-efficacy and how self-efficacy can drive persistence in the face of failure [6]. Quantitative evidence collected from pre- and post-surveys of two course offerings demonstrate increased self-efficacy in technical and entrepreneurship-related domains.

1.1 History

In 2013, iDesign Studio was developed and taught as a first year seminar. The course has since become a regular offering (no longer restricted to first years) and was adapted for a grant-funded 3-week summer workshop with scholarships for community college women. With a limited class size of about 15 seats, it is taught in the makerspace on campus and attracts students from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines. For many, the course is an introduction to the makerspace and a gateway to connected programming on campus, including entrepreneurial activities [7]. The course’s popularity is evidenced by a consistent waitlist typically matching or exceeding capacity each semester.

1.2 The role of making, innovation and entrepreneurship

Much like a business incubator provides budding entrepreneurs with resources to focus on and advance the development of their ideas, the course uses an incubator approach to support experiential learning and design thinking within a makerspace [8]. Assigned work contains enough scaffolding to provide structure while leaving plenty of room for innovation, and studio time is spent in a makerspace with the availability of the instructor, near-peer mentors, hardware components and prototyping equipment. Our choice to build this incubator experience around the creation of tangible prototypes was influenced by Papert’s (1980) constructionist theory [4], which emphasizes the power of making artifacts as a way to propel self-directed learning, and by the crucial role the learning environment plays in understanding and forming the learner’s experience [5].

Entrepreneurial thinking is supported throughout the course, as projects implicitly mimic the business cycle from ideation to prototyping constrained by available resources. The hands-on, creative nature of the work incorporates risk-taking and recovery from failure throughout the design, implementation and revision phases [9]. Entrepreneurship education often focuses on cultivating certain attributes or mindsets such as questioning the status quo, persistence, and identifying novel markets or processes [2]. Explicit requirements, such as a 90-second elevator pitch and design document, help students think carefully about their final project, while more informal activities, such as in-class discussions around current products and acquisition of hardware components, encourage students to consider market and resource implications.

Student innovation is infused throughout the course, as assigned work incorporates creativity at the outset. For example, a module on using a microcontroller to play simple tones is paired with a weeklong assignment to build a “music box”: a physical housing using a photoresistor to detect light and responding by playing a tune. Student projects ranged from a simple gift bag that played “Happy Birthday” when it was opened to a puppet that “sang” when its mouth was opened. Giving students ownership of the ideas and subsequent design work encourages initiative, persistence and risk-taking [3], with most students using personal or community interests as inspiration [10].

1.3 A gateway to community and unexpected pathways

The course is pitched to attract students that might not label themselves as “techies” or “entrepreneurs.” By starting at a common ground with no assumed background or experience, we use the incubator experience to build a strong sense of community. Studio time is spent in a makerspace alongside selected near-peer mentors [11]; we are careful to construct an inclusive and welcoming climate environment. A maker classroom can inspire students to take risks with their learning, but such risk-taking, from taking on more difficult tasks to recovering from failure, can be impeded by fear of negative criticism [12]. Furthermore, when self-efficacy in technology is not yet solidified, students will tend to avoid challenge and practice, without an environment (or staffing within) intentionally trying to counteract this [13].

We strive to create a space where students, mentors and the instructor experience successes and failures together; these moments often provide comedic relief, such as the repetition of a single sound bite exposing a software bug, and subsequent community building. Paired with hands-on material, the resulting incubator approach empowers many students to consider unexpected pathways [14][15]. Indeed, four of the fourteen women who took the first offering went on to complete computer science majors.

2. Course Structure

The course is structured so that students experience the process and resources similar to what would be found in a startup incubator. The first half of the curriculum is built around hands-on laboratory activities that introduce the basics of electronics and microcontrollers while independent assignments emphasize individual creativity. The remainder of the course is dedicated to a final project that encourages students to bring innovative ideas to life, with entrepreneurship incorporated implicitly and explicitly throughout the process. Embedding the course in the makerspace on campus provides access to equipment and a flexible space that encourages collaboration and innovation.

2.1 Logistics

Timing. The course meets twice each week, with a “lecture” slot of 75 minutes and a longer studio slot of around 3 hours. By meeting in the makerspace on campus, class time can be used flexibly, allowing a mix of short lectures, discussions and hands-on laboratory work.

Staffing. In addition to the faculty instructor, the course is supported by student teaching assistants, who offer around 10 hours a week of evening drop-in help sessions and are also present for some of the class meeting times. These teaching assistants are generally chosen from the pool of previous iDesign graduates. Training and support includes a start of semester discussion and weekly 30-minute check-ins. Supplementary training for specific laboratory activities is scheduled for new labs; the instructor typically walks through the planned activity with the TAs. As near-peers, the TAs are also crucial in communicating student workload and perspectives to the instructor.

Space, equipment and tools. The makerspace offers an array of equipment and a flexible space that enables student innovation. Access to soldering stations, sewing machines, laser cutters and storage permits seamless transitions between step-by-step laboratory activities and more open-ended creative assignments. Materials and student work are stored in the space, via:

  • A storage rack allocating each student a plastic lunch tray measuring approximately 16”x20” for storage; this lunch tray rack is mounted on casters to facilitate movement between teaching areas and storage areas.

  • A multi-bin cabinet organizing consumables.

  • Bins for modular activities containing complete sets of components necessary for specific hands-on activities.

Materials and supplies. Inventory for the course is bought and maintained by the staff. Students are provided materials for weekly labs, and stock is available for associated assignments. Whenever possible, supplies are reused across multiple modules. We note the incorporation of the Arduino-compatible SquareWear wearable computing platform by (shown in Fig. 1), which was partially designed for the iDesign Studio course. This platform includes on-board components, such as light and temperature sensors and a buzzer, lowering the overhead for initial projects (e.g., the “music box” mentioned in the Introduction).

Fig.1 The SquareWear 2.4 wearable computing platform.Image retreived from

2.2 Curriculum

Introductory modules. Weekly modules during the first half of the course provide an introduction to the basics of electronics and microcontrollers as well as core components of the design process. Each of these modules is loosely structured as follows:

  • a short lecture on technical material

  • a hands-on laboratory activity

  • an assigned project with technical requirements and room for individual creativity

This schedule encourages an experiential learning cycle. In the lecture, students are introduced to new concepts and asked to consider how to utilize them. This is followed by studio time, where students are given a hands-on laboratory exercise and support to work with the new technologies and try out different configurations. The associated assignment generates concrete experiences with bounded endpoints. Finally, the weekly cycle concludes with a show-and-tell period of student-led reflective observation and discussion.

Final project. The remainder of the course is dedicated to a final project, where students are guided through a design process mimicking a startup incubator process. The entrepreneurial lessons of communication, market context and acquisition of required resources infused throughout the introductory modules are made more explicit as students kick off their projects with a 90-second elevator pitch and design document. The design cycle continues through prototyping, ordering parts, refinement, documentation, presentation and reporting. Students present progress weekly through oral presentations and online documentation. Deliverables include pitch documents, update posts, presentation slides, design documentation reports and the physical prototypes.

Grading policy. iDesign Studio is primarily focused on building self-efficacy and excitement among liberal arts students, and the grading policy reflects that. This single-minded focus is possible in part because iDesign Studio is not currently a prerequisite for any other course. To help emphasize that exploration and persistence through failure will be rewarded, students are told that attendance and participation are weighted more than more traditional academic ambitions like exams and quizzes. In general, we found that students were inspired to go far beyond the minimum.

3. Modules and projects: a glimpse

The incubation curriculum is deliberately constructed to create space for innovation while providing the technical foundation and support required to bring ideas to fruition. A modular design helps students “mix and match” the basics of electronics and microcontrollers and allows flexibility in adapting for different audiences and contexts (e.g., a middle school afternoon workshop or a summer immersion experience for high schoolers). Students combine, extend and modify what they learn in smaller projects as they work toward their final projects. We provide a glimpse into the curriculum to highlight how powerful the experience can be for students, including those without a technical background.

3.1 Introductory module: storytelling

This module kicks off with a class discussion about storytelling and what the minimal requirements for communication could be. The instructor asks the students if they think that they could tell a story with only two lights and challenges them to design a script for a short love-story where the two lights represent star-crossed lovers. A typical script follows: the stage opens with no lights, first light appears, second light appears, lights blink on-and-off in harmony, the second light ceases to light, and scene ends when the first light extinguishes. Students initially find this silly, but quickly name the characters and are crushed when the characters expire.

The hands-on laboratory requires the class to convert the script into an interactive light display. Students draw circuit and wiring diagrams for the two-LED circuit using skills developed the previous week. The instructor introduces lines of code for turning LEDs on, turning LEDs off, delaying for one second. The students practice using these three lines of code in different configurations to animate the script with a SquareWear and lights. The lecture is concluded with a “peer-programming” activity, where the students guide the instructor through completing the program; the instructor follows the class’ directions and poses questions if the program does not behave as intended.

The associated storytelling weeklong assignment requires students to create a program with four 10-second stories that are activated by the button, output to at least one external LED (in addition to the SquareWear internal LED), schematic and wiring diagrams and photographic documentation. A sample student submission can be seen in Fig. 2. Students are required to explain and demonstrate their story in front of the class as part of the weekly show-and-tell.

Fig.2 A student submission for the Storytelling module includes a 
wiring diagram (upper left), construction drawing (upper right), storyboard (lower left), physical prototype (lower right).

3.2 Student-designed projects

Students kick off their final projects with a 90-second elevator pitch. The pitch requires them to think of an audience for their “product,” and many find inspiration in personal interests and experiences. We give several examples to highlight the breadth of completed projects; refer also to Figs. 3 and 4.

Fig.3 Highlighted final projects: Shy Chameleon (upper left), Music Touch (upper right), WordBoard (lower left), BuzzLightNight (lower right).

Motivated to make reading more exciting, a kindergarten teacher’s daughter wrote, illustrated and hand-bound a book about a Shy Chameleon whose color changes page to page. An intended music major created Music Touch, canvas sheet music that plays the name of a note in its pitch when touched; the course inspired her to complete a computer science major and start a hackathon founded on the explicit goal of being inclusive. Developed by a mother excited to help her children learn both English and Spanish, WordBoard rewards correct matching of a word cards in each language with flashing LEDs. A student wanting to be respectful of her roommate made BuzzLightNight slippers with LEDs and a vibrating mini motor disc that buzzed when close to obstacles; the following semester, she won “Audience Favorite” at the pitch competition on campus and presented her product at a regional entrepreneurship exhibition.

Fig.4 Highlighted final projects: Split-Brain Neurological Simulator
(upper left), Musical Theater Diorama (upper right), 
Accelexpression (lower left), Underwater Community (lower right).

The Split-Brain Neurological Simulator demonstrates how an affected individual can process visual information, but not see it. This project, led by a biology major, included custom interfaces to an existing neuron simulator with the addition of light sensing and motion capabilities. The Musical Theater Diorama was designed by a student double majoring in Architectural Studies and Theatre Arts. The diorama has interchangeable sets that trigger light and sound corresponding to the appropriate scene. Originally pitched by a dancer to help teachers and students monitor precise poses, Accelexpression is a motion-dependent ballet skirt with color-changing LEDs.

The course has also inspired a new interdisciplinary collaboration between iDesign Studio and a costume design class for an Underwater Community performance. Costuming and iDesign students formed paired teams (one student from each course) to facilitate a greater understanding of technology for costuming students and motivate aesthetic aspiration for iDesign students. Teams created full-body costumes that expressed a shared undersea creature aesthetic using translucent fabric materials, LED light strips, the SquareWear platform and interactive light sensing.

4. Impact

To evaluate the impact of the iDesign Studio experience, we studied two sections of students, one enrolling community college students and another enrolling four-year college students. Our results show quantitative gains based on pre- and post-surveys of self-efficacy in technical and entrepreneurship-related domains.

4.1 Participants and Context

One section of the course was offered in the summer for community college women (n=8). Students ranged in age from 19 to 48, and included Black, Latinx, Asian, and White women. Students were planning to pursue majors in computer science, math, or engineering at one of four different community colleges in the Northeast region. At least two students had a faculty member recommend that they take the class because they thought the students would benefit from an all-women’s environment, while others were encouraged to take the class for the challenging opportunity. The course was taught by an Asian American female computer science professor with approximately ten years of college teaching experience. She was employed by the four-year college where the course was offered. In addition there were two female peer mentors, one African and one African American. The classroom for the course was the four-year college’s makerspace. The tuition for the community college students, as well as the instructor and peer mentor support, was provided by a grant from a regional foundation to the four-year college. The community colleges ranged in size (5,000 to 8,000 students) and location (urban and rural), within a 60 mile geographical range.

A second section of the course was offered in the fall semester at the same four-year college. Ten first-year students, all women, enrolled, with an age range of 18-23, and including students identifying as White, Asian, Black, and African. Students’ anticipated majors ranged from Anthropology to Architecture to Asian Studies, as well as Computer Science. Students ranged in prior knowledge (some had little or no experience with technical subjects whereas others had some exposure to computer programming) and reason to enroll (e.g., to bridge art and technology, gain technical skill). The course was taught by a White male engineering professor during his first year of full-time teaching, with support from two female peer mentors (one white and one African). The classroom was also the makerspace of the college. The four-year college was a private, selective college for women, with less than 3000 students, and located in the Northeast. At the college, STEM course enrollments are strong. The makerspace at the four-year college was relatively new, approximately 1000 square feet, and contained materials including computers, a laser cutter, and a 3D printer.

4.2 Procedure

The purpose of the study was explained on the first day of class by one of the researchers, who was not an instructor of either section of the class. Students were invited to provide consent to participate which included having their course information (i.e., course-related surveys) to be analyzed for research purposes to learn more about their experiences. The consent forms were collected in an envelope by the researcher, and reviewed after the course was over. All participants in the summer course and fall semester provided consent for the research. However, two of the participants in the fall course did not complete their pre-survey because they joined the class after the survey was administered. One additional student in the fall course provided consent, but did not submit surveys, and was omitted from analysis.

4.3 Data Sources

We adapted items from the computer science self-efficacy survey to formulate a technical self-efficacy survey [16]. The items targeted the technical tasks they were engaged in during the course, such as “I feel confident working with a microcontroller” and “I feel confident writing simple programs for the computer” as well as entrepreneurial-related activities, such as “I feel confident pitching/presenting my ideas in front an audience.” Students rated their agreement using a six-point scale, ranging from 1 = very unconfident to 6 = very confident.

4.4 Data Analysis

We quantitatively compared students’ ratings of self-efficacy pre-survey to post-survey, using paired samples t-tests. Given the similarities in responses across sections, and the small sample size in each section, we report on the sections as a collective. Although the sample size, even when grouped, remains small (less than 20), previous research has established that sample sizes even smaller than 10 can use this test effectively [17]. We also chose to include Hedges’ g as an indicator of effect size, in addition to Cohen’s d, as g is recommended as less biased for smaller samples [18][19].


Table 1 contains our findings. Students reported feeling more confident in their work with a microcontroller, t (14) = -4.377, p=.001; d = 1.13, g = 1.09, exceeding Cohen’s convention (>.80) for a large effect size. Students also reported feeling more confident with the design process (i.e., writing out a plan on paper and connecting the plan to action steps), t (14) = -4.365, p =.001; d = 1.13, g = 1.09, and more confident with writing a statement that pitches their ideas to an audience, t (14) = 2.320, p =.036; d = .60, g = .58, suggesting a modest effect size. We observed no significant change in other items (i.e., pitching in front an audience and finding/trying new approaches when something doesn’t work); however, the means did shift in the anticipated direction.

Table 1. Technical self-efficacy pre-post survey responses. [Responses ranged from 1=strongly disagree to 6=strongly agree. N=15]

I feel confident…

Pre-Mean (SD)

Post-Mean (SD)

t (df)


Cohen’s d

Hedges’ g

Working with a microcontroller.

2.5 (1.1)

4.2 (1.5)





With the design process: writing it out on paper and then connecting the plans to action steps.

3.6 (0.9)

5.0 (1.0)





Finding and trying new approaches when something I originally try doesn’t work.

4.3 (1.2)

4.7 (0.9)





Pitching/presenting my ideas in front an audience.

4.3 (1.2)

5.1 (0.8)





Writing a statement that pitches/presents my ideas to an audience.

4.5 (1.1)

5.2 (0.7)





Writing simple programs for the computer.

2.8 (1.5)

4.3 (1.6)





5. Available Curricular Materials

Due to its modular nature, parts of the iDesign Studio curriculum have been adapted for a variety of audiences and time durations. These adaptions can be found at This dedicated iDesign Studio website features a Getting Started section that allows educators to build a base curriculum depending on the learning level and needs of their student body. The curriculum can further be customized by swapping out or in modules and assignments found under Educator Resources. Pre-designed and carted kits allow for quick and easy purchases for all iDesign modules, assignments and workshops.

6. Conclusions and Future Work

The iDesign Studio curriculum provides an unexpected gateway to innovation and entrepreneurship. By embedding the class in the campus makerspace and deliberately constructing scaffolding to provide an incubator experience, the comprehensive experience unleashes risk-taking and creativity while building persistence and confidence.

Most of the students who have taken the course entered with the perception that they were tech novices and were surprised by how well they mastered the initial projects. Indeed, it seems that their low self-efficacy could actually be leveraged to encourage risk-taking, as they expected to encounter challenges from the start. The inevitable cycle of failure, analysis and recovery, whether technical or design-related, built their confidence and encouraged persistence through the next stumbling block. As a result, they were more open to conceive of increasingly ambitious projects as the weeks progress, thereby boosting their self-efficacy in technical and entrepreneurship-related domains. The impact of our approach is supported by quantitative evidence, innovative student projects and unexpected subsequent pathways.

Future directions. In the future, we are eager to unpack the longer-term trajectories of students, ways some of the lessons can find their way into other introductory courses or first year seminars, and how specifically entrepreneurship may be an interdisciplinary hook for students coming together as a diverse learning incubator that is not owned by STEM alone. The approach has the potential to fuel new initiatives across the sciences, social sciences and humanities.

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