Service-learning is a high-impact practice that provides students with hands-on learning while participating in meaningful community service that meets academic course objectives. Students critically reflect on their experiences and work with their community partners to recognize ways in which they can learn about and resolve real-world issues.

The Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge allows students to learn the required course material while making a difference in Mississippi. Individuals enrolled in service-learning classes featuring the Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge are helping a vital Mississippi industry to reduce their losses, increasing the sustainability of the state by finding new ways of using otherwise-discarded raw material, and exercising their creativity in generating and developing ideas for never-before seen processes and products. Through reflection, students pinpoint their personal strengths and weaknesses, define their professional identities, and become empowered advocates for change. To facilitate real-world learning, the product proposal which meet the Challenge requirements will be awarded a budget for prototype development. Additionally, a cash prize will be awarded to the winning team.

The faculty benefits as well: in addition to meeting course objectives, they create an environment which fosters deep learning through an application of theory in practice. Working on the Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge allows them to meet other instructors interested in service-learning which may lead to further collaborations in teaching, research, and publications. Last, forming relationships with community partners opens doors for further high-impact teaching opportunities and research endeavors. There is also a financial incentive for faculty to participate; the mentor of the winning team will receive a prize of unrestricted fund payable to their home department.

The Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge is an Extension-driven program that combines service, teaching, and research into a unified effort to find tangible solutions to a real-life problem.  In doing so the Challenge will increase undergraduate research opportunities, develop a portfolio of new products from non-marketable sweet potatoes for Mississippi’s sweet potato producers, and provide a challenging, engaging service-learning opportunity for students and teaching faculty.

The Challenge is not only developing new products for the sweet potato industry, but is also evaluating how experiential and service-learning can impact educational outcomes.  This program is being regularly assessed to document how students can best learn in university settings. 

Funding for this project is provided by the Mississippi State University Extension Service Internal Seed Grant program.

How The Challenge Works
There are two-phases to the Challenge.  The first phase occurs within the context of a service-learning course.  The second phase is an undergraduate research experience in which a student team is partnered with a faculty member to develop their product.  A winner is selected at the conclusion of the Challenge each year.

Phase 1 – Concept Development
The goal of phase 1 is to introduce student innovators to the problem and to personalize it by having them interact with growers and to see the problem first hand.  Each student in enrolled in a service-learning designated course in which they will be asked to develop a concept for their new product.   The product will be developed with a target market or need in mind.  Each teaching faculty member has the flexibility to choose how to best assign and evaluate the concept within the context of their own course.  Within the course, a menu of topics such as intellectual property, entrepreneurship, and patent searches will be available for each teaching faculty to integrate into their course as appropriate.  At the conclusion of the course, students interested in developing their concept into a prototype are invited to present their product to a panel. 

Panel 1 – The Pitch
The presentation format is a 5 minute pitch for the concept with 5 minutes for questions.  Student innovators are invited to deliver a short presentation to a panel of growers, faculty, extension agents, and other experts.  The purpose of this panel is to select concepts with the most promise to advance to the next phase of the Challenge.  Presentations should describe their concept, the potential market, and how it meets the objectives of the Challenge. 

Phase 2 – Product Development
Well-developed ideas will be offered funding through a faculty mentor to move their product from concept to reality.  Before moving to Phase 2 each team will need to file an invention disclosure and fully understand the intellectual property rules associated with the Challenge.  Only teams whose members unanimously decide to move forward will be offered further support.

In Phase 1, teams should have developed what they want to do and why it is a good idea.  Phase 2 should develop how that product can be made.  This part is largely extracurricular although a team’s mentor can offer Directed Individual Study (DIS) credit at their discretion and with appropriate approval.  At the conclusion of Phase 2, teams should have a viable early-stage product that is ready to go to market. 

Panel 2 – The Final
Teams again present their product and its value proposition in a format similar to Panel 1.  A winner is selected and the top three teams will be invited to present at Mississippi State University’s Investing in Innovation (I3) Day.