IPRO LABS Develops New Bridges with the Community and Industry

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There are myriad reasons why the Interprofessional Projects (IPRO) Program—Illinois Tech’s signature hands-on, real-world learning initiative—is special.

An experience shared by all Illinois Tech undergraduate students, the IPRO program serves as both an engine for creating solutions in cross-disciplinary teams, as well serving as an incubator for new ideas. 

After spending more than five years leading IPRO courses, Bo Rodda, and fellow Senior IPRO Lecturer Limia Shunia, believed there was an opportunity to rethink the IPRO Program to better serve its students, project partners, and the university by redefining the ecosystem in which all three of those parties work together.

They asked: “How do we derive more value from the IPRO program to align more closely with the bigger, long-term goals of Illinois Tech?” The Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship plays a key role in that by aiming to teach the innovation mindset using a practical learn-by-doing approach, with tight connections to industry so that students can validate their ideas in real-time in the market.

With this strategy in mind, IPRO Labs was launched at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester. IPRO Labs, which now serves as the program’s foundational (first) course, consists of five labs—CommunityLab, CityLab, EducationLab, GameLab, and EnergyLab—that expose students to an unmet need derived by one community or industry partner.

The labs allow students and IPRO faculty to cultivate relationships and innovate with community and industry organizations in Chicago. This spring the IPRO team focused on recruiting small businesses as community partners, including R.A.G.E. Skatepark and the Parkway Ballroom. They’ve also recruited Sargent & Lundy, a longtime recruiter of Illinois Tech students in the energy sector.

“Our students, generationally, are different than many of their predecessors and are looking for projects that have a lot of meaning, that have some kind of impact, and that align with their values,” Shunia says. 

Adds Rodda, “We’re giving our students that opportunity to really work on something that excites them and is perhaps even professionally relevant to their career.”

Getting the community partners on board—which are relationships that the IPRO Program and its home, the Kaplan Institute, hope to build upon moving forward—happened quickly. Rodda and Shunia credited Alicia Bunton, director of community affairs at Illinois Tech, and Adrienne Irmer, the university’s associate vice president for external affairs, for their willingness, active involvement, and commitment to the student body to connect them with community and industry partners that they have relationships with so that the IPRO team could engage them about participating in IPRO Labs.

The partners—who include Hothouse and eta Creative Arts Foundation (CommunityLab), Cook County Assessor's Office (CityLab), R.A.G.E. Skatepark (EducationLab), Sargent & Lundy (EnergyLab), and Parkway Ballroom (GameLab) in spring 2021—are community and industry based, eager to work with Illinois Tech students, and want to allow students room to explore, expanding the scope beyond the initial problem. Each community partner has created an introduction video for their organization, outlining what they do, their problem, and how Illinois Tech students can help. 

As an example, the GameLab is focused on finding ways for the Parkway Ballroom to change its revenue model due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cliff Rome, whose company owns Parkway Ballroom, is looking for ideas to create revenue streams that will be anchored by co-working memberships supplemented by earnings from other program uses that promote social interaction where the arts, work, technology, play, and community intersect.

Rome made clear in his introduction video that he views Illinois Tech students as partners who will have an opportunity to make an impact.

“We’re all community. It just made sense,” Rome says in the video. “It was a natural fit because [it was an opportunity to utilize] the expertise and the study power of the institution and its student populace and combine that with what we’re doing in the community….Just see if you bring the two roads together, how they intersect in a meaningful way, where you walk away with these meaningful experiences….These are folks and their lives, and their livelihood. Why not make that better?”