Building the Next Generation of Government Innovators

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Innovators are made, not born. This summer, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began cultivating the next generation of federal innovators through a summer incubator boot camp, aimHI.

AimHI is a pilot program to get high school students excited about careers in health information technology, medical devices and public service. Instead of traditional internships, which can be cost-prohibitive and focused on menial tasks, aimHI provides a free opportunity where students learn by doing and by creating their own experiences.

Jessica Hernandez, Team Leader for Innovation and Technology Solutions at FDA and the creator of aimHI, used the Open Opportunities platform to recruit federal leaders interested in introducing lean start-up concepts to aimHI participants and showing them how they can use their creativity in government.

From Boot Camp to Shark Tank

In June, the nine aimHI students went through an intensive three-day boot camp that introduced them to FDA, product development and lean start-up. After the boot camp, participants were charged with solving a problem for FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

“Over the course of five weeks, the students worked with mentors and expert coaches to transform from students with limited or no prior information technology experience to project managers, user researchers, designers and application developers,” Hernandez said.

The students chose to build and demo a mobile application, CF Teens, for teenagers with cystic fibrosis. The app promotes treatment adherence for hand-held pulmonary devices and empowers users to better manage their health while also sending data to parents and health care providers.

Building a Network and Increasing Diversity in Tech

AimHI participants connected with innovators in both the private and public sectors. Field trips included visits to 1776, the University of Maryland student-led Start-Up Shell, the University of Maryland Makerbot Innovator Center, General Services Administration and Shady Grove Adventist Hospital.

The boot camp itself was staffed through Open Opportunities, which Hernandez said was key to running the program.

“We needed to find a way to get students up to speed, and we thought the best way was to connect them to people with expertise,” Hernandez said. “Through Open Opportunities, we were connected with people like Gwynne Kostin, from GSA, who was their product management coach. Dina Li, from the Department of Agriculture, was their user experience coach, and Rita Shamlal, from the Social Security Administration, was also a coach. If it hadn’t had been for Open Opportunities, we would not have been able to find the coaches quickly and easily.”

Hernandez also noted 80% of the student participants were from populations underrepresented in the tech field. Connecting aimHI participants with a diverse set of technologists was excellent role modeling, Hernandez said.

Professional Development Now and in the Future

Professional development sessions were included in aimHI in order to prepare students for academic and career success. Students learned about professional etiquette, did informational interviews, shadowed executives and built their resumes, among other activities.

“Part of the whole goal was to get students excited about tech, but also to get them excited about opportunities in government and get them thinking early on about academic and professional pathways,” Hernandez said. “With the people we recruited, their eyes were opened even further.”

AimHI is a collaboration with the Gaithersburg Branch of the Montgomery County Public Library, Gaithersburg High School of Montgomery County Public Schools and includes numerous FDA staff, federal volunteers and undergraduate interns. IncubatorEDU, a national non-profit focused on entrepreneurship training for high school students, consulted on the effort. Want to learn more about how Open Opportunities can help you connect to people with the experience and expertise to take your project to the next level? Learn how Open Opportunities works.

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