Flipped digital classroom and entrepreneurship

Experimenting with digital teaching to promote entrepreneurship among young Material Science students

Can we imagine a flipped classroom even in the context of digital teaching, and at the same time help young students developing their entrepreneurial skills?

During the first semester of the academic year 2020-21, the second-year Materials Science Master students addressed these challenges during the “Engineered Nanomaterials” course. We discussed about this experience with the course lecturer, Dr. Carlo Antonini, assistant professor and “Rita Levi Montalcini” fellow, who joined the Department of Materials Science of the University of Milano – Bicocca in 2018.

How did the idea of trying to test the entrepreneurial spirit of students come about?

I need to start from the context: University of Milano-Bicocca. For designing the new course, I took advantage of both the training and the digital tools provided by the University: (i) “Large classroom teaching”, organized by Prof. Elisabetta Nigris and her team; (ii) “Binclusion training”, aimed at inclusive teaching, organized by Prof. Roberta Garbo and her team; (iii) and the so-called “digital clinic” project, organized by Marco Bondi and his team.

Specifically for my course, Engineered Nanomaterials, on a summer afternoon in July 2020 I started to discuss with my wife, Bicocca’s alumna and kindergarten teacher, about engaging activities for students. I wanted to flip the classroom to let the students become active actors in the class, irrespectively of being in a real or an online class. As such, in addition to a more classical presentation and a written assignment, my wife suggested me to try and ask students to prepare a crowdfunding video. I was initially a bit hesitant, but I felt I could trust her teaching instinct. Students were asked to think of an innovation project, starting from one of the nanomaterials that they have studied during the course. The aim of the activity is to promote the startupper’ and entrepreneur’ potential, which Europe is increasingly asking universities to develop.

How was the students’ response?

The video quality and originality speak by themselves: all students put efforts and committed to their projects (yes, hard to admit: my wife was right!). I can also report a comment from a student: “Thank you for pulling us out of our comfort zone through this activity”. This confirms the need to find together with students new ways to tackle the physical and metaphorical shelter-in-place condition, during digital teaching.

Finally, a group contacted me at the end of the course, and with my great surprise they asked me how they could start working on their ideas. As such, over the past few weeks we have worked together on a 1-year business plan and sent out a proposal for a 60 kEUR-worth project. The target funding is the Innovation Project Fund call (IPF 2021), promoted by the U4I Foundation, which supports the delicate transition – not to say death-valley - from research to innovation. We are now waiting to know the proposal evaluation. And getting ready for the next year course!