HBCUs Showcase Innovation at Work

Alabama A&M University received a $300,000 grant from Toyota earlier this month to fund student and faculty research and development projects to achieve a simple goal: help people in the campus community get easier access to work and school while reducing transportation-related emissions.

AAMU will be the first school of any kind to work on projects under Toyota’s Clean Low Emissions Approach & Novel Transportation Innovation Practice. It’s a unique pairing; an automaker with an eye towards a future that will demand environmentally conscious manufacturing, and a school that has quietly built one of the strongest members of the nation’s historically black network of engineering programs.

“We partnered with AAMU because of their focus on renewable energy, strong STEAM programs, and history of preparing well-qualified graduates,” said Al Smith, group vice president, Toyota Social Innovation. “By developing a mobility solution through collaboration with the community, we can help guide students to create better ways to move that also improve quality of life.”

That’s HBCU innovation at its finest: when companies and black colleges pair up to pilot the future design of technology, workforce training, financial literacy, farming, and other areas which will help working and lower-class communities avoid being left in darkness in the full dawn of the automation age.

The best companies know that the customers of the future will be people of color likely living outside of the top one percent. And they know that the best ways to reach a concentrated pool of talented, educated black folks is by working with HBCUs. It’s the same principle the federal government is using to find more diplomats and spies who can work in emerging countries throughout the African Diaspora.

But how can HBCUs distinguish themselves to be noticed by these companies? Graduating students isn’t enough, because it is what a college is supposed to do. Graduating poor black students isn’t enough, because now Ivy League schools are scrambling to do what HBCUs have done for 150 years.

The answer is out-of-the-box approaches to curriculum, research, and community service. That’s how black colleges get in the news, and that’s how they are able to be tapped by Fortune 500 companies for partnerships or to earn the attention when the HBCU leaders are the ones doing the tapping.

Alabama A&M is just one example of black colleges operating with intentional innovation. Meharry Medical College recently announced that it will dramatically change the way it presents curriculum, with students using flipped classroom and blended learning modules instead of traditional lectures beginning this fall. Elizabeth City State will offer degrees in drone technology, which could lead to partnerships with energy companies, military, civic management and other forms of government and government-connected industry.

Kentucky State University and Benedict College are decreasing costs for summer school and regular tuition, looking for ways to increase affordability for students before rising costs push them out of opportunities.

“One of our huge challenges in summer school attendance is the tuition rate we’ve been using,” Kentucky State University President M. Christopher Brown II said during the Board of Regents meeting. “Additionally, this version of the budget from the federal government has restored year-round Pell Grants, so students will have Pell eligibility for summer, fall and spring semesters.”

Benedict President Roslyn Clark Artis discussed pricing reductions in a recent HBCU Digest Radio interview.

And innovation isn’t always in STEM or finance. Sometimes it is positioning programs of strength for success through alternative funding sources. Virginia State and Albany State look to train minority principals as part of a $47 million grant, North Carolina A&T gets $1 million to help address nursing shortages in North Carolina, and Morehouse expands its capacity to help small and minority businesses grow.

Or maybe it’s in the way HBCUs highlight student talent. Maybe it’s not reserving prime website real estate for presidential scholars in Engineering, but the students who find and refine their passion on campus; like the DJs at Winston-Salem State.

Or maybe a football field gets converted into a farm, and farm converts a campus into a historically black work college, and the president becomes known as one of the nation’s transformative minds in higher education.

Institutions with minimal resources don’t outlast depression, oppression, and recession without world-class innovation in their DNA. Black colleges know how to educate the marginalized and meet industrial demands, even when states work to marginalize their existence, and black students do the same by sending tuition checks to PWIs.

But they’ll have to work faster and smarter over the next 10-20 years to outlast the dramatic change in technology and opportunity which will reshape the world as everyone knows it.

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