Bre Przestrzelski has taken a leadership role in turning Clemson University into a campus full of innovators, entrepreneurs and designers, helping roll out programs that have brought new energy to the educational experience at all levels.

The DEN

Bre Przestrzelski meets with students as part of an activity with The DEN.

Przestrzelski, a doctoral candidate in bioengineering, helps bring together students, faculty members and real-world mentors to come up with new inventions and business ideas.

Her work strikes at the core of a broader nationwide effort to advance personalized learning, one of the grand challenges identified by the National Academy of Engineering.

“We’re giving students ownership of what they are learning,” Przestrzelski said. “It’s interdisciplinary work, much like the real world. We’re moving away from an education system that develops students who are exactly the same. Now students are creating their own jobs. They’re having to be innovative with what they’re doing beyond graduation.”

One of her main educational roles is as co-founder and student leader of The Design and Entrepreneurship Network, or The DEN. She has worked closely with her advisor and The DEN co-founder, Dr. John DesJardins.

The DEN started in the Department of Bioengineering in spring of 2014, but has since grown to include students from all majors. They attend the weekly Tuesday night meetings, the content of which is fresh and interactive each week.

Student inventors in some of The DEN meetings pitch their business ideas to faculty members and mentors, who can range from patent attorneys to angel investors. The students get on-the-spot feedback about how they can improve their ideas and what opportunities they might explore next.

At other DEN meetings, guest speakers and students share their knowledge about topics relevant to innovation and entrepreneurship. For example, a graphics communication student group shared what they knew about personal branding, logo design and social media.  Another meeting included a crash course on app development and computer programming with The Iron Yard and electrical engineering students.

The DEN meetings drew as many as 60 students a week last school year and grew out of its original meeting location in Clemson’s main library. The program moved to a Freeman Hall auditorium before settling into its current home, the Watt Family Innovation Center.

“The greatest success for me is seeing students walk out of The DEN every week feeling more confident, becoming better leaders and becoming better public speakers,” Przestrzelski said. “The personal growth I’m seeing in every single one of these students who are involved in The DEN is the best success that I have seen. It’s what keeps me going, keeps me engaged. I think that every student should be walking out of Clemson being a more confident leader.  It is these leaders who will go on to be the innovators, whether it’s in their own ventures or previously established companies.”

Support for has come from both on and off campus, even from the National Basketball Association.

Among the supporters is Ken Carr, the NBA’s former vice president of social responsibility and player programs and now CEO of Pro2CEO. Carr gave a talk in March 2016 to over 100 students on different types of leaders and handling difficult life transitions. Trevor Booker, a former Clemson star who now plays for the Utah Jazz, has supported The DEN financially and has heard students pitch their business ideas.

Przestrzelski began down the innovation and entrepreneurship path in fall 2013 when she became Clemson’s first University Innovation Fellow as part of a program run by by the National Center for Engineering Pathways to Innovation, or Epicenter.  It is a national program with over 700 students nationwide at over 170 institutions of higher education and is funded by the National Science Foundation while being directed by Stanford University and VentureWell.

In the program, “fellows advocate for lasting institutional change and create opportunities for students to engage with innovation, entrepreneurship, design thinking and creativity at their schools,” according to the center.

Przestrzelski has also worked to reach students in the K-12 system. With her help, The DEN has led interactive exhibits at engineering expos for grade-school children, participated at Greenville’s iMAGINE Upstate, and volunteered to teach team-building and design thinking at Trevor Booker’s youth basketball camp. Przestrzelski also helped found a summer program for high school students, LemonADE Stand: Accelerating Design & Entrepreneurship.

Going into the 2016-17 school year, she is aiming to get every department in every college across campus to join the innovation movement she has played a key role in launching.

“The DEN is helping create that lasting innovation culture on campus,” she said. “There are a lot of things going on when it comes to innovation and entrepreneurship, but I think we’re playing a really critical role in that piece for the next leaders of innovation.”

For more on The DEN, go to http://www.thedenwebsite.com/