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NIU’s Rockford STEM strategies highlighted at Innovation Day

April 29, 2015


Northern Illinois University Associate Vice President for Engagement and Innovation Partnerships Rena Cotsones shined a spotlight on NIU’s work in Rockford during an April 29 presentation at Illinois Innovation Day in Springfield.

Organized by the Illinois Science & Technology Coalition (ISTC) and the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity (DCEO), the day of learning, sharing and discussion connected government, research institutions, industry and civic organizations across the state.

This year’s event emphasized ways innovative technologies catalyze new products, companies, and jobs around Illinois with the theme of Regional Prosperity through Innovation.

Cotsones’ presentation, entitled, “Growing our own Engineers and Innovators: STEM Strategies in Rockford,” illustrated examples of NIU’s engagement in Rockford and spoke to the university’s collaborative and inclusive approach in growing the STEM workforce and creating a culture of innovation.  Cotsones emphasized the importance of starting early to build awareness and interest through NIU STEM Outreach activities, developing clear pathways and seamless transitions between institutions and programs and providing support for innovators and entrepreneurs while engaging all sectors of the community.

Examples of successful engagement activities include the following:

  • The NIU College of Engineering & Engineering Technology’s successful 2+2 program that streamlines the path for students to receive associate’s degrees at Rock Valley College and transition to baccalaureate engineering degree completion;
  • NIU’s role in convening a group of higher education, economic and workforce development leaders to accelerate innovation, job creation and global competitiveness in the Rockford aerospace cluster, which resulted in a 2010 federal grant and the formation of the Joint Institute of Engineering & Technology – Aerospace (JiET-A); and
  • Expansion of support for entrepreneurs and innovators through involvement in and acquisition of EIGERlab, which will be enhanced by providing additional components that include product development, accelerator services and technical product development, IT development, advanced manufacturing and co-working space.

Innovation Day highlighted the technology strengths that are positioned to drive Illinois’ business competitiveness and provided input to the Rauner Administration as it develops its strategic innovation agenda.

Cotsones said NIU’s collaborative efforts in Rockford have influenced the following outcomes for the region:

  • 3,000 jobs ($70K avg.)and $300 million investment by Woodward
  • Renewed focus on STEM education in schools and universities, tied to local high-tech employment opportunities
  • Clear educational/experiential pathways for students, start-ups and businesses
  • Higher level of engagement between higher education and local manufacturers and increased understanding of high-tech workforce needs
  • Enhanced opportunities to link venture development and product development with university expertise and resources
  • Collaborative, assets-based approach to regional innovation, economic and workforce development and global competitiveness

Governor Bruce Rauner gave a keynote address about the importance of innovation to the state’s economic growth and competitiveness.  Additional presenters included Laura Frerichs, director of the University of Illinois Research Park; Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce Chief Economic Development Officer Paul Rumler and Caralynn Nowinski, executive director and COO of UI Labs. Discussions centered on four areas: technology incubation; industry partnerships; cluster development; and STEM talent development and retention.