Students enter the 'Shark Tank' for social good

UI students pitch ideas, seek help for improving community

Katy Misel, a University of Iowa junior from Solon, works with Forest, her golden retriever, April 9 in Iowa City. Misel
Katy Misel, a University of Iowa junior from Solon, works with Forest, her golden retriever, April 9 in Iowa City. Misel is training Forest as a therapy dog as part of her “Fieldwork in Social Innovation” class at the UI. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — They can feel worlds apart.

Town and gown. Community members and college students. Iowa City parents hovering over toddlers screeching and squinting in the Pedestrian Mall splash pad versus twentysomethings scurrying to class, ducking into coffee shops and bar hopping as the days trade shifts overnight.

But one University of Iowa professor has and continues to contend — through initiatives, like his recent “Green Room” project that engaged thousands of community members with one of his classes — that more unites the two camps than divides them.

And David Gould’s most recent initiative to hitch his honors students with community leaders who might serve as mentors again emerges from his groundbreaking Fieldwork in Social Innovation Class — the same one that brought The Green Room to town.

Where The Green Room represented the class’ community-service mission by presenting national and international thought leaders with inspiring ideas on addressing social needs, his 2019 Fieldwork students are presenting themselves and their ideas to local bigwigs — “Shark Tank” style.

After working all semester to identify problems they’re passionate about solving and developing plans to somehow address them, Gould’s 13 Fieldwork students this Wednesday will pitch 10 projects to 30-plus UI, community, political and business leaders with the potential resources to make them reality.

“Think of it as a pitch competition for social good,” according to a flyer for the program, scheduled from 5:30 to 7 p.m. in the UI Becker Communication Studies Building, Room 101.

The 30 dignitaries who have confirmed to attend include UI President Bruce Harreld, Tippie College of Business Dean Sarah Gardial, Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Executive Officer Kim Casko and Iowa City Manager Geoff Fruin.


Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, also will be on hand along with Nate Kaeding, director of business development at Build to Suit Inc.; Joe Tiefenthaler, executive director of FilmScene; Andre Perry, executive director at The Englert; and Veronica Tessler, founder of Yotopia Frozen Yogurt.

The students will make their cases in timed presentations for the value of their projects, in hopes of inspiring involvement from the community leaders who can marshal resources to help make them happen.

Kaeding told The Gazette he’s looking forward to hearing the pitches and believes in the “brilliance” of Gould’s efforts to marry the passions and ideas of the college youths with the experience, expertise and resources of the broader community in which the campus sits.

“I’m more than willing to help out wherever I can bring some value,” he said.

Kaeding said he’s also interested in hearing what problems the students have identified as needing to be addressed.

“We all live in our own little worlds,” he said. “Being in a college town with 30,000-some students — we don’t always get their perspective.”

Perry, too, said he’s eager to help any way he can and wants to go into the presentations “open,” without preconceived ideas about what the community needs or a sneak peek at what the students have in mind.

The ideas

All the “sharks” with the same perspective should stop reading here.

Because Gould’s students shared with The Gazette some of their plans — including a massive downtown “paint by number” mural aimed at uniting middle and high school students around a message against gun violence.

Others aim to build a library at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, also known as Oakdale Prison; reduce plastic waste in the community; tell the stories of marginalized and overlooked people; and improve the UI experience for international students, many of whom feel ignored, misunderstood and devalued.

“A common thread with a lot of them — those who are good speakers and those who are not — is that it’s hard and difficult to make simple conversations with their peers and their faculty,” said Jia Ern Ong, 20, a third-year student who’s project involves deep work on decreasing the polarization between international students and the community.

“They find that sometimes they feel diminished in that setting because folks don’t take time to talk to them,” Ong said. “They ignore them and don’t include them in group work.”

The university boasts of its international student onboarding programs, welcoming initiatives and community supports, but Ong found in her research that few international students know about those resources. Her project aims to do the difficult work of disseminating that information, meeting with international students and understanding the challenges they face, and addressing the implicit biases they experience.

“They have no clue about resources,” she said.

UI junior Katy Misel, 20, said the growing problem she wants to address is student mental health. And she’s enlisted some help to do it: a 1-year-old golden retriever named Forest.

Misel said she has experienced the release that petting a dog can provide during high-stress times in life — including final exams — and she’s seen other students express similar feelings, scrambling to take study breaks when therapy dogs make special visits to campus.

Her goal is to develop a self-sustaining campus pet therapy program that creates regular office hours in the Iowa Memorial Union for students needing a petting break.

Because a main barrier to constant pet access is the low supply of therapy dogs, Misel’s program would encourage students with personal pets to get them the required training.

It would take shape in the form of a student organization, with members enlisting their animals and bringing them in to the petting office to provide therapy.


“The idea would be to have a therapy dog team across colleges on the UI campus,” she said.

Gould, administrator at the UI Belin-Blank International Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development, said although he hopes his version of “Shark Tank” will be “much less adversarial” than the popular television version, it’s an apt analogy.

“Because I’m trying to grab your attention, I’m trying to show you there’s a real problem I’m trying to solve, I’m trying to show you that I have done my homework in understanding it, and then I’m trying to show you I have a novel idea to solve it,” Gould said. “Then, what typically happens is the sharks say, ‘Well what do you need me for?”

He hopes that happens at his event as well.

“What I want the students to experience is that if I really work hard and have an idea, there might actually be a possibility that this could actually take off,” Gould said. “That something could actually happen.”

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If you go

What: Fieldwork in Social Innovation presentations

When: 5:30 to 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: University of Iowa Becker Communication Studies Building, Room 101

Who: The event is free and open to the public

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