First cohort of EPIC completes course, advancing experiential learning, research and innovation

When students from varying disciplines work together to solve real-world problems, they gain research and collaborative skills through the experience. The earlier the foundation can be laid to build these skills, the better-prepared students will be when they enter the workforce. The UMaine Experiential Learning Innovation Central (EPIC) offers exactly this preparation, seamlessly blending learning with industry needs in Maine.

EPIC has been years in the making, led by Ali Abedi, professor and associate vice president for research and director of the Center for Undergraduate Research (CUGR). Abedi and his team’s efforts included surveying faculty, research center directors, students, and employers to understand what they are looking for in new hires.

“The way we define research is not just in the sense of hard sciences [engineering and natural sciences] research. We define research very broadly in terms of creative activity, scholarships, the social sciences, humanities, and arts,” explains Abedi. “I think that’s where the magic happens, when you bring a person from business with an engineer and an artist—then that’s when something like the mobile phone gets created.”

The multidisciplinary nature of EPIC is a natural method for how students would interact with other professionals beyond the classroom. “We didn’t sign up for mechanical engineering to do statics all day,” says Benjamin Swanson, a freshman in Mechanical Engineering at UMaine. “This class motivated me to keep going, it’s a lot more of that problem solving thinking that I really enjoy doing.” For students in their early years at UMaine, EPIC provides a solid overview of experiential learning pathways they can use through the entirety of their academic careers.

Swanson is part of the inaugural cohort of students completing the first EPIC course this Spring, INT 125: Experiential Programs Innovation Central. The semester has focused on projects students selected from themes informed by industry needs. Starting with research, teams of students explored problems to solve from incorporating Artificial Intelligence for more energy-efficient buildings, to protecting right whales by designing better lobster trapping mechanisms, to developing more cost-effective technologies for smaller local farmers to gain data about their crops. All of these projects involved collaborative teamwork across different disciplines, and help to develop better businesses in Maine.

Students get out of EPIC what they put in. With the experiential learning skills they gain, students can choose how they want to proceed beyond the class. The course is a core component of the EPIC Certificate in Research, Innovation, and Strategy (CRIS) through the Division of Lifelong Learning for engineering students, though it is open to any student. Coursework for the certificate also includes project management, computational and critical thinking, communication, research, writing, and marketing.

Throughout the course, projects were complemented with coursework developing technical skills like prototyping sensors, and expanding knowledge through lectures from guests around the university. Some of the guest lecturers included Kimberly Whitehead, UMaine Vice President and Chief of Staff; Habib Dagher, executive director of the Advanced Structures and Composites Center; and Peter Schilling, director of the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

“I learned a lot about different resources that the university provides that I didn’t know about before,” says Kettie Cormier, a junior in civil and environmental engineering. “It opens up our brains to future ideas.”

Ultimately, EPIC can help students find good jobs after college. “My hope is that these sorts of activities for students will help them rise to the top of the resume pile,” says Abedi. Among an applicant pool of highly qualified candidates, all with high GPAs and degrees from UMaine, those applicants who can show they have real-world problem-solving experience, will stand out and get the attention of employers. “This is a student that actually knows how to work in a team, how to work with other people and not just go to class, take notes and exams,” says Abedi. “The first thing you build is not going to work, so you have to know how to debug it and how to problem-solve.”


Written by Clarisa Diaz