Trust and the “We Weren’t Sure You Were Serious” Moment of iFoundry

In 2009, the Illinois Foundry for Innovation in Engineering Education ( admitted 73 freshmen into a special pilot freshmen experience that consisted of the following elements:

  1. A one-hour course Introduction to the Missing Basics of Engineering.
  2. A zero-credit extracurricular activity called iCommunity (handbook here)

The course consisted of two small hands-on projects and small discussion sections that discussed the critical and creative thinkings skills called the missing basics (video and paper).  The iCommunity consisted of 4 student-run teams aligned with student aspirations: Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Engineering in Service to Society, Services and Systems Engineering, and Art and Engineering Design.

The early days of iFoundry went swimmingly with a positively framed launch experience called iLaunch in which team-building activities were run, including a low-ropes course and team selection. Thereafter, things got a bit bumpier as the teams didn’t know what they should do.  The iCommunity had no requirements, and the teams kept asking what they should do.  iFoundry leaders answered by saying they would have the opportunity to report on their plans at the midterm iCheckpoint, but that what they did was up to them.

iLaunch 2009

This lack of structure caused a good deal of consternation.  “What do you want us to do?” was a constant refrain, and we answered, “You’re an entrepreneur go build something,” or “You want to save the world, start saving.”  These complaints and confusion continue up until the iCheckpoint, at which time, all four teams made lovely presentations about their plans, some of which were quite ambitious.

The evening of the iCheckpoint concluded with a kaizen or improvement session in which feedback was sought on how to improve.  A number of useful suggestions were made, and then one of the students raised her hand, and said that she had a comment not an improvement.  We asked, “What’s your comment?” and she continued as follows:

“We weren’t sure you were serious about us doing what we wanted to do, and then we realized you were, and it was really cool.”

Upon hearing this, I looked at iFoundry Associate Director, Karen Hyman, and she looked at me, and we both knew in that moment that something special had happened, but we didn’t know how special.

Immediately following that evening it was as if they students had been unleashed.  They started to take action and initiative without our permission and the remainder of the year was a whirlwind of freshmen taking uncharacteristic initiative in self-directed fun and learning activities.  In thinking back on why this happened, we realized that it was consistent with modern thinking about intrinsic motivation, but we realized that fundamental dynamic was about trust.

In short, we trusted the students, they believed they were trusted, and that belief resulted in them having the courage to take initiative in ways that aligned with their own aspirations.  In hindsight, there were a number of other actions on the part of iFoundry organizers that helped set up these virtuous circumstances, but the fundamental action was trust, and trust has become a pillar of the ThreeJoy approach to transforming engineering education around the globe.

To find how you can build trust into your change initiative, write to me at