Becoming the university of the future with VCU and Adobe

Image of VCU campus.

As the pace of change continues to accelerate, employers expect their workforce to embrace lifelong learning and skills development. To prepare students for their careers, universities and other higher education institutions are looking at new ways to teach students the essential skills needed to succeed. Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) is closing the gap between career requirements and best-in-class learning, creating a new blueprint for the university of the future.

In this article

  • Prototyping the future of higher education with da Vinci
  • Finding new career paths by embracing design
  • Embracing innovation for students and faculty
  • Exploring future creative technologies

“The world is increasingly defined by exponentially growing technologies, big data, and artificial intelligence,” says Fotis Sotiropoulos, Ph.D., provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at VCU. “People’s current experiences are also being re-defined as technology impacts everything people do. Our vision is to enable our students to become skilled in the basics of computational thinking, but also develop skills that machines cannot acquire, such as compassion, understanding, and creative design.”

As an Adobe Creative Campus, VCU is taking a significant step towards realizing its vision. Making digital literacy a priority for all students and faculty across all disciplines is the goal driving the partnership between VCU and Adobe. Students, faculty, and staff have access to all Adobe Creative Cloud apps on any device, for use at any time. This means that any class in any discipline becomes an avenue for students to practice digital literacy through critical thinking, problem solving, and creative communication.

Interested in learning how universities are teaching digital skills? Read more.
VCU da Vinci Center.

Prototyping the future of higher education with da Vinci

Giving all students a common technological foundation opens up new opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration. As part of VCU’s Quest 2025 strategic plan, the university aims to reshape the campus experience with more experiential, project-based learning that reflects the real world.

The VCU da Vinci Center for Innovation is the university’s center for cross-disciplinary experiences and innovation that reflect real-world experiences. It offers a space where students can experiment, take classes, earn certificates, and gain unique experiences that will help them succeed in their academic and professional careers.

“There’s always the question of how we can make student learning more effective and accessible,” says Garret Westlake, executive director of the da Vinci Center. “At the da Vinci Center, we’re creating a prototype for the future of higher education with more digital and user-centric environments.”

The da Vinci Center is built upon three primary opportunities: academic, experiential, and experimental. In other words, the Center supports academic classes, engaging experiences, and innovative experiments that revolve around real-world, cross-disciplinary skills. Adobe Creative Cloud apps bring value to all three types of areas by providing tools that support creative thinking and problem-solving.

Finding new career paths by embracing design

As an academic center for VCU, the da Vinci Center offers many classes and certificates to help students unlock their potential as innovators and business leaders. Product innovation courses bring together ideas from art, business, and engineering to teach students what it means to bring a product to life from initial design concept to development. Human-centered design courses help students understand how to put customers, clients, and people at the center of any product, service, or activity. Students can take these courses as electives or apply the credits to a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree.

Adobe Creative Cloud apps are used throughout these courses. Students use Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to design logos and packaging for their products. Adobe XD is used for prototyping, not only for its ease of use, but also for the ability to share and review prototypes digitally — an essential feature for collaboration between busy students in the digital age. Apps and services such as Adobe InDesign and Adobe Portfolio allow students to create resumes and digital portfolios that help their work stand out during job searches.

Jon Mirador and Devin Singh are two students who saw their career paths change thanks to cross-disciplinary learning and design internships obtained through the da Vinci Center. Mirador originally entered VCU as a mechanical engineering major, but he also embraced his artistic side as photographer for the school’s newspaper, The Commonwealth Times. After taking electives at the da Vinci Center, he started to wonder whether engineering was the right place for him.

“I fell in love with the ideas of innovation, creation, and human-centered design,” says Mirador, who graduated in 2021 with a Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies degree, specializing in user experience and user interface. “Mentors at the da Vinci Center pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me find my passion for UI/UX design.”

Image of Jon Mirador, VCU 2021 graduate.

Jon Mirador, VCU 2021 graduate.

Mirador took full advantage using Creative Cloud to expand his design skills and become a better designer. “I learned to work with Adobe InDesign and Illustrator because I could experiment at any time on my own computer. Adobe XD was the biggest change for my UI/UX design workflow. It’s so easy to use, and the ability to share designs with other people makes it very easy to collaborate with others,” adds Mirador.

Singh joined VCU with the goal of entering the field of medicine. “I had nearly completely all of my pre-med courses when the pandemic hit, and it actually made me realize that medicine wasn’t my passion,” says Singh, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 2021. “I love helping people, interacting with patients, and tapping into human empathy, but I didn’t love the actual science of medicine.”

Image of Devin Singh, VCU 2021 graduate.

Devin Singh, VCU 2021 graduate.

While researching how she could apply her Psychology major to other careers, Singh discovered UX design. The ability to use problem-solving and strategy skills to help people appealed to Singh, and she dove into the courses and certificates available through the da Vinci Center. This led to a UX design internship, followed by a job offer to become a user experience design strategist.

“Working in UX is actually very similar to medicine: you need to look at your audience’s pain points, empathize with their issue, discover what they want, and strategize about how you can help them,” says Singh. “I use Adobe Creative Cloud apps every day to innovate, prototype, and think creatively about possible design solutions.”

Embracing innovation for students and faculty

The da Vinci Center also supports students through experiential and experimental activities. Experiential refers to engaging experiences offered through the da Vinci Center. One example is the Shift Retail Lab, a real-world space where student entrepreneurs can showcase and test new products, services, and ideas. The Shift Retail Lab was selected as an honorable mention in the Urban Design category as part of the 2022 World Changing Ideas Awards for Fast Company due its unique approach to promoting student innovation.

Image of JACKED logo.

Image of a bag of JACKED jackfruit jerky.

VCU Master of Product Innovation graduate student Julien Reininger’s Jacked. A Jackfruit jerky featured at Shift in 2021.

Some students use Shift Retail Lab as a storefront, selling completed products. Others use the space to interact with the public and gain valuable feedback to help refine ideas and even obtain investment. These student entrepreneurs, or “Shelfies”, receive support from the da Vinci Center to help them learn how to refine and present their ideas. Adobe Creative Cloud apps are used throughout the experience, whether Shelfies are designing a product, communicating with any co-creators, or creating signs and messaging for their corner of the Shift Retail Lab.

“Cross-functional team building is really at the heart of what we’re doing at da Vinci,” explains Andrew Ilnicki, director of digital innovation at the da Vinci Center. “We like our transformational experiences to have students working with other people in a way that mirrors real life.”

The da Vinci Center also acts as a hub for experimentation across VCU. The Shift Retail Lab started out as an experiment before becoming a full-fledged experience. Next, the da Vinci Center is planning to start rolling out Adobe office hours as a way to support further adoption of Adobe Creative Cloud across disciplines.

Exploring future creative technologies

VCU continues to push all disciplines to provide new experiences for students. Several departments are looking at ways to adopt Adobe Substance 3D collection, such as creating 3D mockups of new products or sculpting interesting objects used in interior design.

“Innovation and creativity benefit every student,” says Ilnicki. “Our goal is to bring cross-disciplinary collaboration and skills to all fields, from business to nursing to public policy. Adobe Creative Cloud will continue to play a role in helping us bring education into the future.”