Poop University: UC Denver Students Take A Stab At Open Innovation

04/17/2017 12:42 pm ET Updated Apr 18, 2017

Haven’t heard about the Space Poop Challenge, yet? Let’s bring you up to speed.

Back in November of 2016, a humble little NASA crowdsourcing project about equipping spacesuits with better built-in bathroom technology went viral. The media pickups began rolling in, thousands of people started sharing posts about it on social media, and eventually, Trevor Noah at the Daily Show gang got ahold of it and made a very lengthy skit parodying the contest. And no, we did not use any judges from either Project Runway or Shark Tank, for the record. 

Perhaps the most flattering result of Space Poop’s virality, however, was learning that a professor at the University of Colorado Denver was re-creating the Space Poop Challenge as part of her curriculum.

Addressing Innovation in the Classroom

The course is Engineering General Chemistry, and it’s professor Chelsea M. Magin, PhD’s very first time teaching. When not teaching, Professor Magin also works at a local medical device startup, which might shed some light on her proclivity for innovative, real-world classroom exercises. In fact, the company’s first product is actually a urinary catheter, so the concept of space waste wasn’t too far off from Magin’s experience. 

“Most of the engineering majors at the University of Colorado, Denver ― mechanical, electrical, civil, etc. ― take my class as an introduction to chemistry concepts that will be important for their work later.” she told us.  The choice to use an open innovation competition as a classroom example of this magnitude will expose many a budding engineer to the importance of creativity and independent projects. 

Digging In

70 students were randomly assigned to teams at the beginning of the semester. These teams were designed to mimic the experience of being hired on at a new job and be placed on an interdisciplinary team right off the bat, which is a common experience for engineers in the private sector. Their first assignment as newly formed teams? To solve the Space Poop Challenge in the same format as it was presented on HeroX.com, including all guidelines provided by NASA.  There is one additional requirement to this project, however: the students must use at least three chemistry concepts and one engineering principle in their solution. Sorry students, no getting by with an MS Paint drawing and a partially filled out entry form (ahem, looking at some of you, Space Poop competitors...)

Acing the Space Case

All 13 teams have been working through the sections of a final report provided in the Space Poop guidelines, which includes a background, innovation, and approach section, among others. They’ll also be using weighted design matrices to compare their individual ideas and select for the best ones to develop. Finally, at the end of the semester, each team will present their ideas to the class. These presentations will be taking place the first week of May, so the class has just a month left to get their Space Poop designs in order. In keeping with the spirit of a true open innovation competition, there will even be a panel of judges involved in selecting the winner. The panel boasts expertise that rivals that of a real HeroX judging panel, and includes local chemistry professors, a chemist/engineer from the EPA, an engineer from Lockheed Martin, and the University librarian who taught the class how to critically evaluate, select and cite our references for the project. 

Webinar VIP Status

After hearing about the UC Denver mock Space Poop Challenge, we were instantly flattered and more than thrilled to invite the class to join in our Heroes of HeroX: Let’s Talk About Poop Webinar, where the class dialed in alongside the actual winners from the real Space Poop Challenge. During the webinar, they were able to ask questions of the winners directly.  The students got all the gory details of working on design teams, as well a first-person perspective on designing something from scratch that ultimately ends up in the NASA arsenal. 

Curious what the winners had to say? Here’s the full recording of the webinar: Heroes of HeroX: Let’s Talk About Poop from HeroX on Vimeo.

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