Sacred Heart University opens its IDEA Lab


By Kim Swartz

Sacred Heart University (SHU) students now have a space—11,000 square feet of it—to exercise their creativity, explore their ideas, and develop new concepts. The University in Fairfield, Connecticut has officially opened its IDEA Lab (Innovate|Design|Engineer|Apply) at its West Campus.

“This has been a vision, a goal and a dream,” says Rupendra Paliwal, provost and vice president of academic affairs. After visiting a similar lab at Yale University, Paliwal says, he and faculty members put their heads together to conceive and build something beyond the typical university makerspace. They also wanted to be pioneers in bringing business and technology together on campus. Paliwal says that vision came to fruition. “We want our students to do real-life projects and to be useful to the small-business community,” he remarks.

Early this year, Linda McMahon, a long-time supporter of SHU and SHU President John Petillo explored the lab with Martha Crawford, dean of the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology (WCBT). They stopped at several stations to speak with WCBT engineering and computer science students who were demonstrating the use of the facility’s high-tech equipment including a 3D-printer and a range of prototyping equipment such as a thermo-molder, water and laser cutters, and a drone fleet.

McMahon, former administrator of the Small Business Administration, reflected on the University’s growth. She served on the University’s board of trustees for 12 years before her career called her away. During her time at the Small Business Administration, McMahon said she visited numerous companies and saw how important it is to have a workforce trained to use modern machinery and technology. She noted that WCBT’s engineering students are getting excellent training in the IDEA Lab. “Students are inventing and creating materials and producing them while learning skills they will apply in the real world. This is fantastic,” said McMahon. “What you are doing is so innovative and cutting-edge and exciting.”

Cedric Bleimling, professor and lab manager, said students, faculty, and staff now have the means to create almost any hardware product they can conceive. “We offer a wide range of machines, from 3D printers to laser-cutters to a water jet-cutter,” he says. “Combined, these machines allow students to build electronic devices such as a smart thermostat, custom furniture, customized T-shirts or mugs, or even a custom soap bar. We have advanced manufacturing machines that can create parts for heavy-duty use as well, such as carbon-fiber bodies for drones or metal parts for industrial use. Overall, our equipment, combined with our dedicated collaboration areas and culture of sharing, offers a fertile ground for creativity and prototyping accessible to all of our SHU community.”

Students can get involved with the IDEA Lab by signing up for training on the machines, which is offered every week. There also will be workshops with experts who will help guide students to accomplish their goals and an “open lab” component that enables them to work on a project with staff to help them on a first-come, first-served basis.

“By providing an active learning experience, we are hoping to better prepare students with the critical 21st-century skills they will need in the workforce. On top of the technical skills, our hands-on, collaborative approach fosters critical thinking and boosts self-confidence,” Crawford says. “We hope this will translate into students who feel better prepared for their future careers, as well as starting projects of their own and becoming entrepreneurs.”

Sacred Heart University offers more than 80 undergraduate, graduate, doctoral, and certificate programs on its Fairfield campus. It also has satellites in Connecticut, Luxembourg, and Ireland and offers online programs. More than 9,000 students attend the University’s eight colleges and schools: Arts & Sciences; Communication, Media & the Arts; Computer Science & Engineering; Health Professions; the Isabelle Farrington College of Education; the Jack Welch College of Business & Technology; the Dr. Susan L. Davis & Richard J. Henley College of Nursing; and St. Vincent’s College.