Big Ideas staff is available year-round to assist students in writing proposals and developing their project ideas. The team typically offers 10 open office hours per week with a variety of advisors with diverse expertise. In the couple of weeks leading up to proposal deadlines, Big Ideas extends office hours to the full business day, allowing students to drop in any time while a staff member is present.
Advisors’ professional experience is taken into consideration in the hiring process to round out the team’s expertise in content areas that align with Big Ideas categories. As such, Big Ideas advisors can often provide expert consultation to students. However, Big Ideas believes that non-expert, non-hierarchical consultation can be just as effective a resource for Contest applicants. A major goal of the Big Ideas contest is to develop in students the ability to think critically about project ideas and their impact, and learn to communicate their projects effectively. A common challenge for highly technical projects is being able to make their product descriptions digestible to a wide audience. If an advisor is unable to understand a description of the student’s innovation, it is a telltale sign that the project needs more clarity.
Big Ideas advising hours are more often process-focused (i.e., focused on developing skills related to the process of designing innovative projects, such as critical reflection skills) than product-focused focused (i.e., focused on developing a successful Big Ideas project), with the ultimate goal of ensuring that students come away from the advising session with an understanding of how to critique and think in a deep, iterative way about their project ideas. Advisors often strive to model the process of critical inquiry (e.g., asking questions like, “How will you know if this component of your project works the way you’d like it to?” or “Has this approach already been tried? If so, why is it no longer being implemented by someone else?”).
In other words, Big Ideas advisors are trained to provide feedback on projects (e.g., direct, explicit, expert advise about adding or changing components of projects), but also to ask questions of applicants that promote reflection. This same philosophy applies to the provision of key research resources. Often times, students will attend advising hours to obtain feedback on a certain idea, and the advisor will know of similar initiatives or products being implemented of which the team is not aware. Instead of pushing a student to change the direction of their project, the advisor should encourage the student to look into similar models and determine whether their own product is competing or complementary.
Finding a balance between process and product-focused advising is often challenging for advisors, as applicants typically attend office hours looking for expert consultation. However, Big Ideas stresses to advisors that the long-term benefits of helping students develop critical thinking and project management skills far outweigh the benefits of short-term, project-specific advice. Specific inquiries outside of advisors’ realm of expertise can always be redirected to others within the Big Ideas network—Practitioners in Residence, judges and mentors who are willing to take questions from teams, affiliated academics, or other relevant experts. See the Advising Guide in the Tools section for a complete overview on process-focused advising.
- Encourage students to map out a theory of change for their project. An effective learning exercise is to have students explain the underlying logic model of their innovation. Frameworks, such as a theory of change, help students identify key information gaps that form the basis of their idea.
- Push teams to conduct a thorough landscape analyses. Years of feedback from judges have shown that identifying similar existing solutions is consistently the weakest part of students’ proposals, despite emphasizing this heavily in advising hours, and even building in an explicit component into the proposal for a landscape analysis. Part of the problem is inevitable; with their many years of experience and exposure to industry, judges will always know of programs that students are unaware of (another reason why the judge feedback is so important).