Elon University / Today at Elon / Karl Sienerth uses STEM knowledge to foster a passion for innovation

Karl Sienerth, a chemistry professor at Elon, has been an influential committee member of the Elon Innovation Challenge for the past six years, serving as its chair each year.

Each year, the Doherty Center hosts the Elon Innovation Challenge (EIC), an innovation hackathon for students from Elon University and other schools to come up with a solution to a real-world problem.

Karl Sienerth, Professor of Chemistry at Elon, has been an influential committee member of the Elon Innovation Challenge for the past six years, serving as its Chair each year.

Professor of Chemistry Karl Sienerth speaks at a fundraising event for faculty staff in 2022 in the Snow Atrium.

Sienerth has been a professor, mentor, and scholar at Elon since 1998, when Elon was still known as Elon College. He enjoys teaching chemistry in various courses, such as B. in the second seminar, an advanced course on chemical instrumentation and in the chemistry laboratory. He has become a sought-after mentor for chemistry students and is also a helpful leader for ambitious non-science majors.

What sparked his connection to an entrepreneurial challenge? Sienerth thanks Alyssa Martina, Director of the Doherty Center for Creativity, Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

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In the fall of 2016, Sienerth was head of the chemistry department and Martina worked tirelessly to attract students from all disciplines to innovation and entrepreneurship. Companies and ideas require many perspectives and positions with different valuable skills are always needed. In many cases, a scientist is also required.

However, when asked what his biggest challenge as chair of the Elon Innovation Challenge has been, Sienerth shared that it was his lack of experience in business and entrepreneurship. “When I’m evaluating teams, I can offer thoughts on whether I find something practical and useful, but I have no real basis for making harsh judgments about marketing or funding models,” Sienerth said.

While he relies on other committee members to share their expertise on these topics, his experience and knowledge of chemistry is sure to be used in many other ways in the challenge.

The annual competition has taken many different forms over the years since Sienerth has chaired it. The challenge introduces a new theme each year and has historically covered important issues such as the environment, mental health, creative entrepreneurship and recycling.

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In 2021, the Elon Innovation Challenge focused on universal experience of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted small and medium-sized businesses, with a longitudinal competition focused on helping these businesses survive during the pandemic. In other years, it was a weekend hackathon or an event that spanned several weeks.

Projects generated as part of the Elon Innovation Challenge series have been able to fulfill a range of functions, from detecting date-rape drugs in beverages to minimizing waste in Elon’s waste stream, two that Sienerth says are among his favorites.

The winning entry is not the focus of the competition, but rather the teaching of design thinking and entrepreneurial skills to solve a unique problem.

“For me as a scientist it is a learning experience every year to see how the students approach this year’s EIC theme and come up with amazing ideas with really worked out marketing and implementation strategies. Of course, not every team can hit a home run, but I’m always amazed at the creativity of our students,” said Sienerth.

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The theme for the upcoming Elon Innovation Challenge has yet to be announced, but Sienerth hinted at a focus that would be somewhat STEM-related.

“To celebrate the new Innovation Quad, the EIC theme will likely have a STEM flavor this year. But we don’t want this to deter students who think science and math just aren’t their forte,” said Sienerth, making sure all Elon students are encouraged to participate.

As Sienerth and Martina pointed out, teams need different perspectives, all of which play a role in solving problems and developing a new business. Teams representing a wide range of different majors and teammates are best placed to develop a viable idea, whether the topic involves STEM, the creative arts, or the environment.

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