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2016 Seminar

SAIL group outside Google headquarters

SAIL 2016 seminar faculty take a short break outside the headquarters of Google.

Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem

On-site portion of the seminar: July 11-20, 2016

Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem was the fifth in a series of Seminars in Advanced Interdisciplinary Learning (SAIL) organized by the ACM colleges and funded through a generous grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Go to Project Outcomes for curricular materials created by SAIL participants

This 18-month seminar had a 10-day on-site portion in California's Silicon Valley in July 2016, bringing ACM faculty together as a small learning community to explore issues related to the connection between innovation and the liberal arts.

The leaders of Silicon Valley as an Innovation Ecosystem, who proposed the topic and site, were Lawrence University professors Adam Galambos (economics), David Hall (chemistry), and Martyn Smith (religious studies). See the list of seminar participants.

Broadly conceived, the seminar addressed the following questions:

  • What can we learn about cross-disciplinary innovation from Silicon Valley?
  • What do liberal arts values and habits bring to an innovation ecosystem?
  • How could the innovations we observe in various fields in Silicon Valley transfer into our curricula and pedagogy?
  • Are there cultural traits or innovative practices that would benefit our liberal arts campuses?

“Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, with the humanities, that yields the results that make our heart sing.”

- Steve Jobs

Silicon Valley is an evolving innovation ecosystem: a cluster of institutions, individuals, and organizations located within a specific region that facilitates innovation through cultural, economic and networking assets. As such, it provided an extraordinary setting for exploring these questions during 10 days on site.

In the on-site portion in July 2016, the seminar's themes and explorations were anchored by visits to unique Silicon Valley institutions, including tours and talks at major companies and at the more modest headquarters of recent start-ups, as well as conversations with researchers at the labs at Stanford University. The seminar also included visits to other contextually important locations and institutions, such as San Francisco's Castro district and Haight-Ashbury, and the Insight Meditation Center. This breadth of sites informed a discussion of cross-disciplinary innovation through the lens of the liberal arts.

Stanford University Plaza

Day three of the seminar in Silicon Valley focused on Stanford University.

The seminar group also met with alumni from ACM colleges to hear their insights on innovation and the liberal arts, and how their education prepared them (or didn't) for life in Silicon Valley.

Participants in the seminar pursued active learning about the innovation ecosystem at various field sites. Group discussions permitted faculty, both collectively and individually, to translate their observations into the liberal arts world of teaching and learning.

The plan for site visits explicitly built on the fact that Silicon Valley is not simply a pocket of incredibly successful corporations, but also a location in which rich cultural assets contribute to its ecosystem. Accordingly, the seminar asked as a central question how the social makeup of the region relates to the entrepreneurial environment.

Following the on-site portion of the seminar, each participant created a course module on innovation specific to his or her teaching interests. Faculty from across the ACM can leverage the individual course modules to enhance existing curriculum or put modules together to form an entire course on innovation in the liberal arts context. In addition, seminar participants planned to jointly develop a white paper on innovation and liberal arts colleges.