Watson University: next generation talent tackles the world’s toughest problems

On a recent Monday morning a stone’s throw from the C.U. Boulder campus, a very different kind of college education is happening in the Spark basement co-working space on Uni Hill. |

Watson University’s eleven spring semester scholars arrive for a class on creativity and innovation. After some lively discussion and brainstorming, the group – including me as an active observer – spill out of the classroom for a tennis ball passing exercise which leads us to recognize some rules of successful, creative problem solving: ask lots of questions, don’t assume that the obvious way to do something is the best way, experiment, risk failure, and incorporate improvements as you go along. It’s an effective (and fun) lesson.

The current class of Watson University superheroes.

The current class of Watson University superheroes.

You’re not alone if you haven’t heard of Watson University. The semester-long accelerator for student innovators, leaders, and entrepreneurs founded by Eric Glustrom (also a founder of Educate!, a non-profit working with school systems in Africa to support and develop young leaders and entrepreneurs) is still in its first year of existence. Already it’s evolving into something new, having just announced “The 21st Century College Degree” which will enable Watson students to graduate in 2.5 years with a Bachelor’s from a partner liberal arts university (the name of which has yet to be announced…stay tuned).

Watson Founder Eric Glustrom was inspired by a visit to Uganda as a teenager.

Watson Founder Eric Glustrom was inspired by a visit to Uganda as a teenager.

“Eric works really fast,” confirmed Rachel Thor, Watson’s VP of Partnerships and Strategies, adding that this “rapid prototyping” is an example of  Watson University practicing what it preaches to its students.

Who are the Watson University scholars? High school grads taking a gap year or looking for an alternative to traditional higher education; current college students taking time off to work on a project and develop a unique skill set; and recent college graduates learning how to jumpstart existing or new projects. They are people like Chenxi, co-creator of the “Bright and Beautiful Girl Project” which helps girls in rural China unleash their potential through storytelling and filmmaking, and Schuyler, a C.U. Leeds School of Business graduate and part of the team behind Future Farms, exploring the potential of aquaponic farming technologies to help fix the world’s broken food systems. Watson students are international – eight countries are represented among the current group.

During a typical week, students split their time between classes on transformative action and entrepreneurship and lab days where they work on projects both independently and collaboratively. They take master classes on topics such as “Scaling Social Enterprises Globally” and “The ABCs of the Start Up.” Many projects are connected to the students’ home countries, so travel is integral to the curriculum. In Boulder, their home base is dorm-style cottage housing at Chautauqua.

Some of the current scholars will get what they need from Watson University in a single semester; others will transition into the new degree program. They will all present their work and answer questions at an end-of-semester program (open to the public) at the Alfalfa’s Market community room on Saturday, May 3rd. “When you see where the world’s greatest need meets your greatest gifts, then everything changes”; come meet and be inspired by these young changemakers.

Photos courtesy of Watson University.

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