Never Taken for Granted

We explore the impact of the alumni-funded Innovation Initiative Grant scheme and highlight three recent projects.

Illustration by Munro Te Whata
Illustration by Munro Te Whata who will be working on an IIG funded graphic novel project

Innovation Initiative Grants (IIGs), funded entirely through donations to the Edinburgh Fund, are small project grants that enable students and staff to test ideas, initiate projects and invest in equipment and facilities.

More than 1,300 students and staff have applied for IIGs over the past five years. With only around 60 successful applications each year, the judging process is rigorous. Experts pore over proposals, ensuring grants are awarded only to the most innovative, fresh ideas that will make a meaningful difference to student life, research or the wider community.

The grant offered to us this year has not only given our students an unparalleled experience, but has had a truly positive impact in the area.

Alex MacLaren

 “My first application was rejected,” says Alex MacLaren, tutor at the University’s School of Architecture & Landscape Architecture. “But that turned out to be incredibly valuable, as I was given useful feedback and, when I applied four years later, I was much better placed to use the funding and make a real impact.”

Since 2012, Alex and colleague Fiona McLaughlin have been working with Baltic Street Adventure Playground in Dalmarnock, Glasgow, giving students hands-on experience working with the community.

In previous years Alex, Fiona and their students built sandpits and treehouses in the playground. However, this summer, IIG funding allowed the team to build one of Scotland’s first WikiHouses – an open-source initiative that enables people to download software and construct small light-weight buildings.

“We were delighted to be granted the funding,” says Alex. “We heard the news in March and got to work right away, as the best time to get students involved was before they graduated in June.

“The whole process took two weeks, and has been an incredible success. Students worked closely with the children and apprentices from BAM Construction. This was invaluable as they were working with contractors just as they would in real life, and had to make sure the kids – effectively the clients – were happy with the project. I really believe it’s these sorts of experiences that ensure our students complete their studies as well-rounded graduates, prepared for the professional world.”

The WikiHouse itself has become a valued asset for the playground. “The idea was that the process of making was more important than the product. However, just this week I’ve been told that a trade apprenticeship programme will refurbish the house and it will become a project room for the playground’s artists-in-residence,” says Alex.

“The grant offered to us this year has not only given our students an unparalleled experience, but has had a truly positive impact in the area.”

Another project recently awarded funding came to fruition during Edinburgh’s August festivals. “It meant everything to get that green light,” says Liesbeth Tip, PhD student in Clinical Psychology. “To know that the University was backing my idea meant I could take it even further than I imagined.”

Liesbeth’s IIG-funded HarmonyChoir project came to life through her love of music and awareness of the profound positive impact singing can have on wellbeing. “People with mental health issues often feel isolated and inferior,” she explains. “And while there are numerous community choirs and music therapy groups, I believed that blending the two could be really beneficial and help lessen the stigma around mental health.”

Liesbeth rallied a group of more than 50 people from various backgrounds and held a number of rehearsals before a sell-out show at the Just Festival. At the event, the choir sang uplifting songs, which were interspersed with talks on taboos surrounding mental health.

Professor Tina Harrison, who took part in the choir, says, “It was great to meet so many different people. Everyone was so enthusiastic, and everyone was equal – mental health was not mentioned when we rehearsed. Liesbeth has left a fantastic legacy and it has been incredible to see what she has achieved with a relatively small amount of money.”

“Although the choir was supposed to be short-lived, I’m delighted we are continuing with it and planning more performances,” she adds.

In the department of English Literature, Dr Michelle Keown’s IIG project coincides with the University’s first ever course on the graphic novel. “The graphic novel is a rapidly expanding field of academic study,” she explains, “and it’s wonderful to have funding to develop resources and activities to support this innovation to our teaching programme.”

The IIG funding will support two core activities. In February 2017, graphic novelist Simon Grennan will co-lead a seminar and workshop for Dr Keown’s graphic novel students, helping them to visualise their ideas and transform them into a comic strip to accompany an essay. He will also deliver a public lecture, discussing how and why he adapted Anthony Trollope’s 1879 novel John Caldigate into a graphic narrative entitled Dispossession (2015).

The IIG funds will also be used to commission a graphic adaptation of History Project, a performance poem by Marshallese eco-activitist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner. The poem explores the devastating impact of the impact of nuclear testing by the US on the environment and peoples of the Marshall Islands, located in the north Pacific Ocean.

“To develop the difficult themes that arise in the poem, we have commissioned Maori artist Munro Te Whata to illustrate it as a graphic narrative,” Dr Keown says. “The resulting comic will be a valuable resource for students, and will be available to a global audience on the open-access website we are creating.

“The graphic novel is one of the most exciting new literary genres to be taught in universities, and I am very proud that Edinburgh has been so forward-thinking in granting this award. These contributions make a huge difference, allowing dedicated students and academics in all disciplines to turn innovative ideas into reality.”

IIG success stories