The challenge of a lifetime

By Dallas Elleman

One student’s experience participating in the Community College Innovation Challenge.

I was fortunate enough to be part of a team at Tulsa Community College that competed in the Community College Innovation Challenge (CCIC), hosted by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the American Association of Community Colleges. To be honest, in the beginning my team’s primary motivation was to take home the prize money. The cash prize and the “resume prestige” of placing in a NSF competition kicked us into high gear exploring possible topics for research.  However, as we discovered common interests within the team and saw their overlap with the NSF’s goals and initiatives, we became empowered to solve problems for which we cared deeply.

Our enthusiasm to take action in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education space was fueled by the realization that our personal interests in aquaponics and sustainability could be applied to the problem of racial and gender disparity in STEM, and that this could give us a unique edge in the NSF competition. Our efforts paid off: we were selected as finalists and were invited to participate in the CCIC Bootcamp.

There is no way we could have prepared adequately for what an amazing learning opportunity we were given through participating in the CCIC Bootcamp.  The event was a transformative, illuminating, world-class workshop run by business, design and communication experts who unleashed a barrage of knowledge and techniques for developing and crisply presenting our research and ideas. I learned more about effective communication in three days than I had in entire semesters. The friends we made and the network exposure we received has also proved to be invaluable.

We didn’t win the competition, but we returned home ready to make a real difference in our community, to continue the mission of broadening STEM participation through aquaponics and outreach, and to share the NSF CCIC opportunity with even more students from my community college.

Taking a different role

I helped to put together a new team who submitted a fresh proposal built on the research and progress from the previous year—and this team also was selected as a finalist in 2016.

I, personally, was ineligible to participate in another CCIC Bootcamp as a student since I participated the previous year; but I was able to attend instead as a representative for the new team’s industry partner. I attended my second CCIC Bootcamp and participated in the faculty/industry track, where I gained a wider perspective on NSF’s mission and their enormous achievements in partnership with many community colleges and organizations.

Over the course of this adventure, I learned things that made a real, permanent and positive impact on my life and gave me even more hope for the future. I was so impressed with the first two years of the competition and I believe in its value so much that even after I transferred to a four-year in the fall of 2016, I kept working with students and faculty at my community college to put together a third team who will submit yet another entry to the 2017 NSF CCIC. I hope they get a chance to experience what I did, and I hope that if you are a student reading this and wondering whether you should spend your time and effort on this competition that you will listen to me and GO FOR IT. I promise that if you put the effort in, you are in for far more than you would ever expect to receive.

Dallas Elleman

Dallas Elleman graduated from Tulsa Community College in 2016. He now studies engineering physics at the University of Tulsa.