David Nassau
Heavener student David Nassau

A hopscotch entrepreneur finds his minor: Innovation

Thanks to Innovation Academy, Warrington student David Nassau is having a unique UF experience.

David Nassau showed up at high school one day in a suit and tie and announced his status as a founding member of the school’s varsity hopscotch team. He recruited a teacher to join the prank as coach. With a little chalk and a whole lot of imagination, Nassau got dozens of students to enter his tournaments, and he launched a nonprofit to raise money through child’s play and channel it into multiple sclerosis research.

His innovative spirit found a home at the University of Florida, which last year sought its first 300 risk takers to delay the start of their college careers until January and agree never to set foot in a UF classroom during the fall. Other than online courses, Nassau will take all his Warrington College of Business Administration classes from January through August.

The spring-summer program may be the first of its kind in the nation. On Jan. 4, President Bernie Machen welcomed the inaugural class of what’s known as the Innovation Academy with a speech about challenging the status quo. He congratulated the newcomers on a leap of faith that has put them on a different path than the 49,000 UF students who started in August.

Quoting the late Steve Jobs, Machen told them, “It’s more fun to be a pirate than to join the Navy.”

The experimental calendar flies in the face of generations of an August-to-May tradition so entrenched that Provost Joseph Glover could find no precise precedent.

“This could be one of the most dramatic changes to the calendar since the advent of summer school. By changing the way we organize time, we can give more students access to higher education,” Glover said.

The Innovation Academy did not start as a program for teaching entrepreneurship, creativity, leadership and ethics. Warrington already does that. The state legislation that makes the initiative eligible for scholarship money identified it only as “the spring-summer cohort class.”

The University of Florida’s offer of delayed entry to Nassau was a plant capacity decision. Every year about 49,000 students enroll in UF in August, which is its capacity in space and resources. However, that number shrinks to 47,000 for the second semester in January. The empty seats represent wanna-be Gators as well as underutilized space. Thousands of deserving students have been shut out of a UF education while too many seats are idle for four months.

Innovation adds incentive to program

Glover sought an enticement to reward risk takers for entering the new program, a mark of distinction. Tapping into UF’s identity as a world-class research facility with a campuswide culture of innovation, he decided that innovation itself would be the draw.

Nassau and his peers from 29 majors – including accounting, business administration, economics, finance, information systems, management and marketing – across seven UF colleges come together for course work in creativity, entrepreneurship and leadership in the cause of change. They are the only students eligible to earn the university’s new minor in innovation.

Only slightly more than a third of last year’s UF applicants who indicated an interest in the then-conceptual Innovation Academy were admitted. That’s more selective than the university as a whole. The university plans to enroll 500 students in the second class, chosen from 3,400 prospective students who sought admission to the Academy as part of their UF applications.

The Innovation Academy began classes on Jan. 7. It follows by two years the opening of UF’s Innovation Hub, headquarters for more than 20 start-up companies based on UF-developed technologies. National and international companies are eyeing the continuing development of Innovation Square as a potential corporate home to tap into local talent. Plans call for a 185-bed dormitory for entrepreneurs, the start-ups’ employees and Academy and other UF students.

The university is creating an intellectual ecosystem where ideas can become products. Buildings don’t come up with the ideas, of course. People do. The academy seeks to cultivate those people.

As Academy director Jeff Citty puts it, “We’re the incubator for the incubator.”

Nassau came to Gainesville five months before his first class at UF. As he saw it, having to wait until January to officially become a student wasn’t a deferral. It was an edge.

He joined the Entrepreneurship Club, the UF American Marketing Association, the Collegiate Sales Academy and three other clubs. He took two UF online classes. He met entrepreneurs at the Florida Innovation Hub. He found a mentor in nonprofit management at Santa Fe College’s Center for Innovation and Economic Development. He started shopping the idea of a local hopscotch tournament.

Nassau also used the fall to study course catalogs and speak to administrators in both the health science and business administration majors before settling on the latter.

“It gives students like me an ideal way to go about schooling,” Nassau said. This fall he’ll choose from among studying abroad, forming a local arm of his hopscotch nonprofit, attending Warrington College’s Florida Leadership Academy, or doing an internship.

Calendar creates time for fun, work

The calendar has social benefits, too. If Nassau were interested in Greek life, he said, he would not have to worry about the time commitment of fall rush interfering with his studies. When he’s in the stands at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, he will not have a term paper in the back of his mind. He can focus on fun. Conversely, taking classes during the “off-season” of June and July promises an environment with far fewer social distractions, Nassau said, and he expects that to improve his learning.-

“If you and your class prove this concept a success, it will encourage other universities to remain open, active and filled with students for more of the calendar year,” Machen told Nassau and his classmates at an Innovation Academy welcoming reception in January. “Today, because of the limited number of spots for students attending in the spring-fall semesters, many qualified students are turned away from public universities. Because of you, we will admit more students with no sacrifice to our quality.”

That’s part of the reason Nassau chose UF, he said. He wants to start traditions instead of just adhering to them. The calendar change has created the opportunity for that to happen.

“I don’t see how this won’t be a game changer. Something similar to this will be the future of education,” Nassau said. “It has the potential to change the way people think about higher education.”

By Chris Moran